London - 1968
It was a filthy night, the rain falling in long silver sheets, the gutters gurgling and the paths slippery and shiny as ice. Cars whooshed past, tyres squeaking. I ran, ducking beneath my umbrella, heels tip tapping, glad I’d worn knee high boots to protect my precious skin tone stockings from dirty splashes. The lights of a café loomed ahead, spilling out onto the pavement, a welcoming sight in the murk. Without hesitation, I darted inside, the door pinging and my umbrella dripping all over the tiled floor.
It was warm and fuggy, the windows streaming with condensation, the air heavy with the smell of strong coffee and fried food. Mostly big, bearded men, wearing baggy jeans and checked shirts, sat at square red and black Formica topped tables, quaffing from mugs and eating egg and chips with triangles of limp white bread at hand to dip into the runny yolks. There was a burble of conversation overlaid with raucous laughter.
Shivering, I sat down and gazed around, shaking my chiffon scarf from my head. People turned and stared. I don’t usually frequent these sort of greasy spoon places but the rain was relentless and, for somebody who’d lived in Paris for the past year, a place like this made a refreshing change. I loosened the belt on my trench coat and took off my gloves. The waitress bustled over and I ordered coffee as the jukebox burst into song, “What am I supposed to do with a girl like Jessamine, though my eyes are open wide, she’s made my life a dream …”
A woman sat nearby, sipping at her drink, a glossy magazine open in front of her on the table. I could see her profile, her nose straight with a tiny tip tilt at the very end, she had shoulder length hair with a dangly fringe. Frowning, I peered closer, did I know her? Even the pretty blue and yellow scarf draped over the back of her chair looked familiar. The waitress came and, with a nod of thanks, I sat back a little as she placed a steaming cup on the table. The spoon tinkled against the cup as I stirred in a cube of sugar and, inhaling the fragrant brew with pleasure, took a sip.
“That’s it,” I thought, “Her scarf … it’s the same as mine …” Absentmindedly, I fingered the material soft and damp from the rain. Perhaps feeling my intense gaze, the woman turned her head and for one long heart stopping moment we stared at one another. I gasped, my hand over my mouth. I thought I’d made a mistake and that the wall was a mirror, but the woman didn’t move. Her hands stayed rigid as hooks clinging to the edge of the table. Apart from that one small thing, it was as if I was looking … at myself. “When Jessamine stays, though time goes fast, this is my world at last, beautiful days lost in her eyes, but then the whole world dies …”
“Sometimes we become our own doppelgangers … we still look the same, but behave like someone else …”
My smile creasing her face, she stood up and came over to the table, “More coffee?” she asked, “I don’t know about you, but I feel shaky, it’s not every day you meet your twin flame is it?” She nodded towards the waitress, as she rolled her magazine and put it in her bag, who nodded back and then rushed to the counter, to the hissing and steaming of the coffee machines.
“Don’t you mean your doppelganger?” I replied. I motioned with my hand that she should sit down.
“Ah,” she said, “Now you’ve made it seem like something scary … weird … when really it’s not …” She sat down opposite me, the chair scraping harshly on the floor as she pulled it out. I noticed that like me she wore a cream trench coat, a pale blue blouse with a pattern of white whereas mine was the other way around. We both wore skirts of a deep blue, very short with black boots that reached our knees. Our scarves were the same and our gloves of black leather, hers now on the table, mine scrunched nervously in my hand.
“What do you mean?”
“That word doppelganger … it sounds sinister …” She fiddled with the ends of her hair with her fingers, smoothing it, rubbing it on her chin, taking it near to her mouth.
I shrugged and smiled, said, “Did you know it’s a German word meaning “double-walker?”
She smiled again … my smile … the smile that I’ve seen in the mirror so many times. Her hair was the same light blonde and even her eyes, a bright green flecked with specks of gold that shone out from that identical face. Noisily talking some of the bearded men got up to leave, opening the door and letting in a blast of cold air. The waitress brought our drinks, hastily putting them down, as another group came in, diverting her attention away from us.
We faced each other again, unable to take our eyes away. I felt nauseous, as if I’d eaten or drunk something bad, my heart beating fast, having the strangest feeling that this was the beginning of something but not knowing what.
“What’s your name?” she asked me.
I smiled and said, “We’re so in awe of each other that I think we’ve forgotten common courtesies … Lucy Richmond … and yours?”
“Stella,” she told me, “Stella March …”
“Ah … Little Women … which one are you?” She held out her hand and we shook, our grip firm and hard.
“Um …” she said, her head to one side, seeming to thinking hard, “Jo, I think … practical, down to earth …”
I giggled and said, “Yes me too, although I may have a little of Amy’s selfishness.”
She nodded, “Yeah perhaps that too.” And then quietly as if an afterthought, “Not Beth’s goodness though.” She sipped her coffee and then, taking a sneaky glance at my hands, asked, “Are you married?”
“No …” I shook my head, “Almost … but I escaped … you?”
“No … I’ve been too busy for anything like that … I’ve been nursing both my Mum and Dad through illnesses … “
“Oh, I’m sorry …”
She shrugged, “They’re both gone now and … sometimes I don’t know what to do with myself … I wanted to be alone for so long … but now I feel guilty for getting my wish … it was stressful, I lost my job, my friends …”
I nodded at the loneliness in her voice, wondering why she’d said she didn’t have Beth’s goodness. She had it in buckets. “Yeah I can relate to that in a way. My escape plan, after my fiancé dumped me, was to run away … so I went to Paris … I’m living in a garret writing a book … just as F Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway did …”
She threw her head back and laughed, my laugh, robust and healthy. “Truly?”
“Yes,” I said, “I’m about half way through …”
“What’s it about?”
“It’s a romance …. boy meets girl, you know …”
“Oh how I’d love to do that,” she said sincerely, “You’re so lucky.” I watched all sorts of emotions flitting across her face … my face … it was bizarre, weird … as if I’d suddenly found my long lost twin sister. Thoughts jostled through my mind, strange thoughts that I didn’t know if I could put into words but, as if prompted to do so, I blurted them out.
“Well … you can if you want to … you could be me … and I could be you … wouldn’t that be a hoot?” I sat back in my chair, calm and relaxed as if what I’d said was really no big deal.
She sipped her coffee which must be cold by now. Mine was so I couldn’t drink it, with a thin film like oil on its brown surface. “You mean …” She pointed a finger from me to her like a child, “We could swop places?”
I nodded, “Why not?” I shrugged and raised my palms in the French way, “Pourquoi Pas?”
“Wow … it’s a mind blowing thought!”
“For six months maybe?” I gazed at her with challenge in my eyes. I noticed that the waitress was putting chairs on tables and had a bucket and mop ready to wash the floor. The coffee machine was quiet and the jukebox silent and dull without its flashing lights.
“Hey, you two … you gotta be sisters right?” said the waitress, and then peering closer, “Nah, gotta be twins,” Her jaw moved rhythmically as a cow chewing cud, “You even dress the same …” We looked up together and smiled, not wanting our friendly waitress to know that we were neither sisters nor twins but doppelgangers. Stella was right … the word did sound sinister … I felt a shiver run down my spine. “Five minutes then girls,” She pointed at the exit, “And I’m locking that door …”
Stella stared back at me, holding my eyes with hers, and, after draining her cup and swallowing hard, opened her mouth to speak.
I’m in Stella’s apartment … yes, me, Lucy Richmond … well, saying that I’m not Lucy anymore, I’m Stella March so will refer myself to that name from now on as I will refer to the real Stella as Lucy. I’ve stepped into another woman’s shoes and all I can do now is see how well they fit. It’s a big place in an old converted house, the rooms high ceilinged and white, bigger than my little garret in Paris making me wonder how she will adapt, how Stella, I mean Lucy, will fit in to the Paris lifestyle. The swinging sixties is oh so good in gay Paree as they say, but so it is in London too. That’s why I’m here now anyway, oh how I needed a break from Paris, from French voices and French ways, extended now thanks to my doppelganger.
I think of Lucy, wondering what she’s doing. Is she looking around my place just as I look at hers? Will she go for a walk around the local area, which is quirky, different, my little garret hidden in back streets with unexpected steps up and down, or will she stroll the River Seine and watch the Eiffel Tower light up the dark? I know that she will like the balcony that juts like a triangular shelf from my bedroom. I spend many hours there with a glass of wine gazing at the cobbled streets and the well-dressed people as they walk up and down like models on a catwalk.
Six months we’d agreed on when we’d met last night in the same café. The café called “The 7Up Cafe,” something that neither of us had noticed the day before. There was a different waitress, a young girl, wearing an overall of pink and white, who made no mention of us being sisters or twins. We exchanged documents … passports, birth certificates, car documents. She has a red mini with a Union Jack painted on the roof. I can see it now in the little car park at the back of the building. I have a 1964 Citroen 2CV, which, because it’s tipped one day to become a classic, makes me hopeful that Lucy will treat it with the respect it deserves.
It’s lucky that we’re both so much alone in the world, neither of us living near close family which will make this adventure, as I’m thinking of it, so much easier. Neither of us will have to lie or pretend. I suppose that’s the only way it will work. Lucy has no family now, no brothers, no sisters and her parents are gone. She has no current boyfriend and not even close friends. “I lost contact with everybody while looking after Mum and Dad,” she had told me.
On the other hand, I have family. I have a Mum and Dad and a brother but they emigrated to Australia a few years ago so, even if I do call once in a while, they won’t have a clue where I am. I could be calling from … I don’t know … Bangladesh, and they’d be none the wiser. It would be interesting though to see if, on catching sight of my doppelganger, they would know that she wasn’t their daughter. Would there be anything that would give it away? Looks wise I don’t think so … but character? Quirks? I wouldn’t like to take that risk.
As I already told Lucy, I ran away to Paris when Miles, my ex-fiancé, dumped me just before the wedding for my so called best friend, the dark flirtatious Anita. I knew that I could manage alone in Paris, I’d worked at all sorts of jobs, squirreling away money for just such a time as this. So being alone, nursing my fragile heart, whilst writing a romantic book about, funnily enough, fragile hearts, was my life … until now. Until I met my doppelganger and everything changed. My very own shattered heart has been put on the back burner for six whole months while I get the very unusual chance to pretend to be somebody else.
I decide to go out, I want to walk the streets of London, to see if they really are paved with gold. Maybe I can collect some in a pot. Peering from the window I see that it’s a typical April day, the sky blue and cloudy and a breeze, filled with raindrops, that’s shaking the trees so they gyrate like Go Go dancers. Pulling on my black wet look boots and belting my coat tight at the waist, I grab my shoulder bag and, closing the door firmly behind me, take the stairs down into the hallway.
Tying a chiffon scarf over my hair, I go out the main door and, running down the steps, find myself on the main street. A long street of grand houses, interspersed here and there with shops, a hairdresser, a newsagent, a couple of cafes, a pub on the corner, “Gales” written into the smart green tiles of its façade, the pub sign with a picture of a lamb, swinging backwards and forwards.
“Ah, so this is Pimlico,” I thought. A strong breeze blew, pulling at my scarf and my hair, getting even wilder as I approached the river Thames its water choppy and turbulent, the wildlife frantically swimming as if on a wild fairground ride. I took a few haphazard twists and turns down back streets where I noticed a couple of take-away places, the spicy smell of Chinese curry wafting in the air. Loud music came from the open doors of record shops and teenagers stood in groups laughing and chattering.
My heart rose at the thought of my six months here in London, although my half written book, the pages neatly stacked, gave me a pang of guilt. Oh, but that’s what I’d do. I’d buy pens, pencils and paper and finish it while I was here. In my mind I could smell the new pencils and notebooks and imagine myself writing on the lined pages, my handwriting long and looping. I looked around for a stationery shop but instead found myself on another long tree lined street with more majestic houses, some now turned into flats and others into shops, mainly antique shops I saw with pleasure.
I stopped at the first one and, gazing into its plate glass window, saw that it was very upmarket, the window full of all sorts of interesting items. My mum and dad had always been into antiques so I was used to the old and unusual objects that were strewn around the house as I was growing up. Gazing up at the shop sign, written in large gold letters on a black background, I saw that it was called “Freeman Antiquities.” A bell jingled as I walked into the plush interior, the air smelling sweet as joss sticks burning at a party. The atmosphere was hushed and I walked slowly, looking at the pictures hanging on the walls, my heels sinking into the deep carpet.
One of the pictures caught my eye, two babies snuggling in a crib, and peering closer saw that its name written in block capitals was “A Double Blessing.” It was a quaint picture, something to give to twin sisters or even perhaps your very own doppelganger. But then again something to keep for yourself.
A voice cut into my thoughts, “Can I help?” and I spun around to come face to face with a very attractive man. He was swarthy skinned and had very straight black hair that hung to his shoulders, middle parted and springing back from his forehead, yet his eyes were green, a beautiful clear green, lighter even than mine, and not dark brown or black as you might expect of someone with such colouring. His looks were so unusual, I couldn’t help but stare.
His face broke into a smile as he said, “Well, I don’t believe it, Stella March …” He frowned then and visibly paled as if something had just occurred to him or that he’d seen a ghost, “I haven’t seen you for years …”
My heart thumping hard, I must have looked mystified but quickly pulled myself together and said, “Oh hi … how are you?” Yet thinking, “How on earth does Lucy know this gorgeous creature …”
He seemed to collect himself and smiled showing even white teeth. His lips were very red in amongst a sprinkling of dark stubble on his cheeks and chin. “You don’t remember me at all really do you?”
“Well …” I shrugged and gave a little gasp of laughter. “Oh my God, how stupid he must think I am. Any woman meeting this man would never forget him.”
He held out his hand which suddenly enveloped mine, sending an erotic tingle all the way along my spine, from the very bottom to the very top, “Cole … Cole Freeman? I remember you from school … and then I used to see you around quite a bit, mainly in the bars in Soho, but not for a while now though … ages actually …”
“Oh … of course … sorry, school seems such a long time ago … ““Freeman? So this shop must be his … or his parents? He’s done so well for himself … far better than me … my poor fragile heart was beating so hard, it seemed to reverberate throughout my whole body …”
“Well yeah it is … the good old days, I can’t believe I’m twenty-eight, getting so near that thirty milestone …” I liked the way he dressed. The smart black suit with fashionable flared trousers, a white shirt tucked in and open at the neck, looked good on him. He wore a silver chain that rested lightly on his collar bones.
“Yeah … well I’m twenty-seven …”
“And not changed a bit … well apart from a slight twang … Australian?”
“Um, yeah, I did a bit of backpacking around that way …”
I felt a deep red heat rise up my face and neck. I definitely wasn’t used to such attention from good looking men that I’d only just met, but of course Cole hadn’t a clue that I’d only just met him. Hmm, interesting that Lucy had frequented bars in Soho. She said she had no friends, so who did she go with? Even so I felt quite dowdy and unadventurous for a moment or two, until Cole broke into my thoughts, “Anyway, is there anything I can help you with?”
“This picture …”
“Yes, lovely isn’t it … Bessie Pease Guttman … an American artist. She painted mainly children and young babies … apparently she used her own children as models ……”
“Really?” I glanced away from the picture to catch him staring at me, his green eyes fixed and almost yearning, “Yes,” I said as, quickly, I turned back, “A similar style to Mabel Lucie Atwell would you say?”
“Yes!” He gave me a quizzical look, “You seem to know something of art? Antiques?”
I shrugged, “Not really … although I do like both, but my Mum and Dad always had an interest so I suppose I grew up with it. Do you know how old it is?”
“Yes, this one was painted in around 1915.”
“Wow, so old, that’s great. How much is it?”
He gave me a price and, thinking mainly of myself and my doppelganger, I said I would take it. He wrapped it carefully and put it in a sturdy carrier bag with “Freeman’s Antiquities” written on it in large black letters. He gave it to me along with that smile again … that smile that lit up his whole face.
“It’s been great to see you again, Stella …but …” He ummed and aahed a bit, seeming unsure of what to say, “I don’t know if it’s up your street or even if you’re looking for work, but I need some help here … just one day a week, or sometimes two, mainly to serve and look after the customers. I’ve got a lot of cataloguing that I need to catch up on at the back. I was just about to advertise but if you’re interested … I have a feeling you’d fit in really well …” He must have noticed my inquisitive gaze because he added hastily, “I mean because of your interest in antiques …”
He let the rest of the sentence hang in the air as the door pinged and a group of people came chattering in. They talked in loud American accents exclaiming, “Hey, what a shop …” “Did you see that stuff in the window …” “Wow man …” They gave us both cheery waves as they pottered around, looking at the pictures on the walls as I had earlier.
“I’m sorry … I’ve put you on the spot …”
“No … it sounds good, um …”
“Look, take my card, give me a ring when you’ve had a think. I could do with somebody here within a couple of weeks though.”
I nodded and, putting the card carefully in my pocket and picking up the picture, said that I’d be in touch. We exchanged a long look as once again he gave me his lovely boyish grin and said, “It’s been wonderful to see you, Stella …”
With another hot blush suffusing my face, I turned and went to the door, the American people making a beeline for Cole straight away, “Hey, man, what’s the story on that picture,” And then pointing, “Yeah, that one right over there … the one with the dogs …”