Wendy Janes has had a number of short stories published in women’s magazines in the UK, and her short story Verity was included in the fund-raising anthology A Kind of Mad Courage. Her novel What Jennifer Knows was self-published a few years ago, followed by a linked short story collection. She loves to take everyday life and turn it into fiction.
by Wendy Janes
Fresh air, at last. The chill of this February evening is a relief after eleven hours slogging my guts out in an over-heated office. It’s insane how much work I’m having to put into the departmental merger. I could do with a pint, pronto.
A blast of icy wind smacks me right in the face. I huddle into my scarf and pull my coat across my chest. No need to do up the buttons for the two-minute walk to the pub. But the wind is relentless, making me turn my head to one side in an attempt to diminish the onslaught. Through watery eyes I catch a glimpse of my reflection in the shiny exterior of our office block and see someone hurrying along so close it looks like they’re going to bump into me. Instinctively I glance over my left shoulder but there’s no one there. Perhaps they’ve gone past me on my right side. No. No one there. Maybe they’ve darted across the road and into the newsagent.
I blink to clear my eyes. As I enter the pub I’m enveloped in a warm fug and a familiar beer-y smell.
“Ethan, over here, mate,” comes a familiar voice over the general buzz of the mid-week crowd in this popular after-work watering hole.
I unwind my scarf as I plough through the crush towards Jeff and a few of the other blokes from our department who are seated in our usual corner.
“My round,” says Jeff, getting up from a table full of empty glasses. “Pint of the usual, Ethan?”
“Top man.” I clap him on the back and take off my coat.
“You’ve got some catching up to do,” he says, heading off towards the bar.
The next two hours pass in a blur of banter and pints, followed by banter and shots. We take the mick out of the higher ups and then each other. No one takes offence and we all have a bloody good laugh. By the end of the evening I’m riding high on comradeship, beer and vodka.
My bladder’s telling me I’d best nip to the gents sharpish before heading off home. I mumble apologies as I knock into a few tables on my way across the emptying pub. Blessed relief when I get there.
I’m just washing my hands when I peer into at the mirror. Christ, I must have had a few too many. There’s two of me in the mirror, and I’m thinking none of us is looking at our best. I laugh at my joke and my two faces laugh too. Double vision, not a laughing matter. Got to get my head down. Thank goodness tomorrow’s Friday and then it’s the weekend.
Next thing I know I’m stumbling out of a cab and in through my front door. God, I’m wrecked. Shh, shh. Can’t hear the telly and there are no lights on so Cathy is probably already in bed. Don’t think I can cope with any bright light so I grope my way up the stairs, into the bathroom, do the necessary, then into our bedroom, drop my clothes on the floor and fall into bed.
I can barely open my eyes when the alarm goes off at six thirty the next morning, but I can tell Cathy’s side of the bed is empty. My head is pounding, my body feels grubby. Must shave and grab a shower. I turn up the temperature as high as I can stand, and when I emerge from the shower into the steamy bathroom I’m a new man. Well, nearly new. This pounding head could do with a couple of painkillers, and then I’ll be right as rain. I towel myself dry, dress in clean shirt and trousers, and head downstairs.
Cathy is sitting at the kitchen table, an empty bowl of muesli and yogurt in front of her. Beautiful blonde curls fall across her pretty face as she focuses on the tablet in her hand; she’s probably reading a book or checking out one of the many health blogs she follows. Working in the local spa, she strives to keep ahead of all the latest trends.
“Morning, love.” My voice sounds rough. I try to clear my throat.
“Good night last night?” She looks up at me with those gorgeous green eyes.
“Great, but my head’s telling me those last few shots might not have been the best idea.” I lean over to kiss her on the cheek.
“I’ve got some painkillers in my handbag, and maybe some breakfast would help.”
“Yes to the painkillers,” I reply. “But I can’t face breakfast. I’ll just fix myself some tea.”
“You’ve not had a heavy night for ages. Is everything OK?”
“Same old stress with the departmental merger. It’s feeling more like a takeover from where I’m standing. The other team are playing hardball. We’re trying to talk through a fair restructuring package and they’re cherry picking the best jobs for their people. Anyway, that’s no excuse to get wrecked.”
“You should come in to the spa for a massage. Won’t solve your work problems, but it’ll reduce your stress better than a few pints will. Sit down. Let me fetch the painkillers and I’ll make you your tea.”
And that’s why I love this woman. No nagging, just some practical advice and a measure of kindness. While she puts the kettle on and hands me a glass of water and two painkillers, she chats about her clients at the spa and I let her words wash over me.
I pick up her tablet, but the screen has already gone black. Before I have a chance to reactivate it, four puffy eyes are staring back at me. There’s another pair just to the right of the first set. I put down the tablet, blink a few times and rub my eyes. I know my head’s bad but surely I’m not still drunk enough to be seeing double.
Cathy puts the tea—in my favourite mug—in front of me.
I smile my thank you and take a sip. “Exactly what the doctor ordered.”
We sit opposite each other at the kitchen table in the sort of silence that’s only comfortable when you’ve been a couple for donkey’s years. Well, nine in our case. We met on a beach in Lanzarote, and knew right away we were more than a holiday fling. On our return to England, I moved down from Manchester to be with her, and we’ve been together ever since.
I finish my tea and head upstairs to fetch my jacket and my mobile. My head still feels rough so I go into the bathroom for the pack of painkillers we keep up here in the cabinet. Might need to top-up the meds during the day. I catch sight of my reflection as I pocket the pack and close the mirrored door.
Unable to move, I stare at the sight in front of me.
They stare back. Two incredulous faces. Eyes wide, mouths slack. I close my mouth. Both mouths close.
“No, no, no, no, no,” I whisper.
I bring my hand up to cover my mouth and stifle a scream as the images in the mirror do the same.
My heart thundering, my stomach churning, my skin alternately clammy cold and sweaty hot, I peer closer. Both heads move forward until four bloodshot eyes, two noses and two mouths fill the mirror.
I step back, and two necks and four broad shoulders appear. I close my eyes and try to take some deep breaths. I can’t. I think I’m going to cry. Don’t you dare. You’ve not cried since your dog died when you were fifteen, almost half a lifetime ago. Pull yourself together.
Maybe it’s one of those tricks, you know, when you have one mirror in front of you and one behind and the reflections go on forever. But there’s only the small shaving mirror by the sink. It’s in the wrong place to create that illusion.
I open my eyes and turn round to look in the shaving mirror; a vain hope I’ll see one Ethan Jackson. No, there we are, two grim faces, one slightly behind and to the right of the other. Inexplicably I grin, and the two grinning faces make me laugh. I find myself making different faces in the mirror—happy, sad, angry, cross-eyed. Hysteria rising as my faces become sillier and sillier, the changes quicker and quicker.
What am I doing? Am I trying to catch the other face out? Making it slip up? What would that prove anyway? Which is the real me? Are they both the real me? Does it even matter?
I lean against the wall and sink to the floor, my head in my hands.
What should I do?
Call Cathy? Call 999? Ring my brother? Ring Jeff? Make an appointment with the GP? Check myself into a hospital?
Think. Think. There must be some rational explanation.
Hangover? No, you idiot, this is more than a hangover.
Although, could there have been something in the beer last night? Some drug? Doubtful.
Could it be stress about the merger? Can stress do this to you?
From downstairs I can hear Cathy calling me to hurry up if I want a lift this morning. I don’t want to make her late for work, so I scramble to my feet and try to compose myself as I walk down the stairs.
Cathy is in the hallway, car keys in hand, checking her makeup in the hallway mirror. Oh, here’s an idea. It might freak her out, but I have to know. I stand behind her, and give her a hug. I can’t resist burying my face in her curls. The curve of her body against mine and the familiar scent of her shampoo steadies me for a moment, until I look in the mirror.
Sure enough, there’s Cathy, so pretty, her pale purple outfit flattering her figure. And there’s me. And slightly behind me is my uncanny twin. We’re both ready for work in our identical smart suits, our dark brown hair cropped close, but with a slightly manic expression in our bloodshot eyes. We both kiss the top of Cathy’s head and she smiles at us.
My heart sinks. Only me then. And then I realize how selfish my thoughts are. Why would I want Cathy to experience this nightmare madness?
Gritting my teeth and grabbing my coat, we head for the car.
Who would think there could be so many reflective surfaces everywhere? No word of a lie, they’re absolutely everywhere: the windscreen and side windows of the car, the wing mirrors, shop windows, office blocks, mobile phone screens. And that’s the stuff I see on my journey to work. I’m so freaked I can only manage a “Bye, love,” as I hop out of the car.
It’s way worse once I arrive at the office. Shiny surfaces wherever I look: polished floors; windows running the length of the room; PC screens, the black surround of PC screens, even other people’s glasses.
The same as I did at home, I engineer opportunities to position myself beside others in case they can see two of me, or even two of themselves. Going up in the lift to the board room, I stand beside Jeff and there are the three of us reflected in each of the mirrored walls behind and beside us, and a wobbly weak image repeated in the silvery surface of the doors. I surreptitiously reach out to touch the wall nearest me and two hands appear to reach back, but my fingers only touch one of the images. So, that’s the real me, and the one to the right is what? A ghost? Some sort of projection?
At the meeting in the board room I try to listen while Jeff presents our latest figures and proposals, but my mind can’t focus.
“Earth to Ethan,” says Jeff as we stand in line, taking a quick break to help ourselves to the coffee and biscuits laid out in the corner of the room. “You OK, mate?” He lifts up the coffee pot to pour out a couple of cups for us and my faces seem to leer at me, both of them distorted in the pot’s convex surface.
“Yeah, just a bit whacked after last night’s session,” I reply, glad I don’t take sugar or I’d be squinting at me and my double in the spoon.
Throughout the rest of the day I obsessively check my reflection and then chastise myself for bringing on more punishment.
Sitting at my desk, trying to respond to an email from my boss, all I can think of is my predicament. It hasn’t affected anyone else, and if it had, would that be better or worse? Would a case of mass hysteria be more or less terrifying? I feel so isolated, unable to tell anyone. They’d think I was mad. Madness can be the only answer. A couple of times my hand reaches for my phone to book an appointment with my doctor, but I don’t. I can’t imagine what I’d say.
“It’s like this, doc. Every time I look in the mirror there’s two of me.”
“How very interesting, Mr Jackson,” he’d reply. “Let me make a phone call and some nice men in white coats will come and take you away.”
Would that be so bad? If I need help, maybe I should simply accept it. Lots of people have breakdowns. The important thing is to be honest, take the help and get better. Cathy would understand. It would be a disaster here at work though. I must make it through these next few weeks with my job intact, and my—outward—sanity intact too. But I can’t cope with many more hours of this, let alone weeks. My neck prickles with tension as I sense there’s someone creeping up behind me. Has the image left the mirror and started following me around for real? I turn round. Thank God there’s nothing there. But the feeling persists. It’s like I’m being haunted by a malevolent spirit that’s determined to break me. Then what? Will a worse horror begin?
Rising panic fills my throat. I clasp my hands together to stop them shaking. On jelly legs I get up from my desk, pace to the window and gaze at the London skyline. I take some deep breaths. Maybe I should tell Cathy. The thought helps calm me and somehow I reach the end of the day.
On my way out of the building at 5:30—no one stays late on a Friday—I can’t help but turn my head to catch my reflection, exactly as I did less than twenty-four hours ago. With a thin smile I give a little wave, and two Ethans give a little wave back. I can’t face the pub tonight, so I head straight home.
Cathy is out with some friends. So it’s just me in the house, and my twin. I greet my duplicate selves in the hallway mirror. Both lean and handsome. I find myself humming the tune of “Me and My Shadow”, which my grandfather used to sing to me when I was a little kid. I reckon little me would have got a kick out of this. Nothing used to faze me. I summon up that cheeky boy and address the mirror:
“OK, lads, what shall we do now? Bit of telly? PS4? Party?”
It’s a relief to see the funny side. Maybe I could live with this. It’s not as if I’m in any pain or it’s hurting anyone else. Wow, there’s a turnabout. I give myself a wink and a smile in the mirror, and very slowly my second reflection simply fades away. I blink. For a full five minutes I stand and marvel at the wonderful sight of my single reflection in the mirror. I take a step to the side and then back again. Still one of me. I check all the mirrors in the house. Back down in the hallway, I do one final check. Yes, I’m alone. There’s only one Ethan Jackson in this house.
Copyright 2020 by Wendy Janes