At first I think it’s just my reflection. The woman in the red coat with the blonde ponytail certainly looks like me at first glance. And in my post-work, fatigue-induced stupor, a glance is all I have the energy for. But when the automatic door slides back, the woman is still there, still striding towards me. For a moment it looks like we are going to collide, then at the last second she neatly sidesteps and glides past me into the shop. I catch a glimpse of her as she goes by, and what I see almost makes me drop my shopping bag.
I was not mistaken. It was my reflection, but not in the usual sense. Stunned, I wheel around and dart back into the shop. She is heading for the fruit and veg section, ponytail tick-tocking from side to side the way mine does when I walk quickly. It’s not tick-tocking now-work has left it limp and wilted, like a neglected houseplant.
I follow her. The place is crowded with fellow shoppers, but none seem to have noticed anything strange. Indeed, they don’t seem to have noticed her at all. Can they see her? No one has so much as glanced in her direction, although I can’t tell if this is because she is invisible to everyone but me, or because the Brits are experts at ignoring each other. Even if they can see her, they will assume we are identical twins who happen to be in the same place at the same time.
Twins. I suppose that’s what we are in a way. She is me, but not as I am now. She’s about two stone lighter, for a start. She’s still curvy, of course, but her hips and legs are slimmer, her stomach flatter, and she doesn’t have a double chin when she looks down. Mine would rival a pelican nowadays-a product of the weight gain caused by having a job I can’t stand.
Her weight isn’t the only difference. The glasses are gone, although I can’t tell if she’s wearing contacts or if she’s had laser eye surgery. The optician always said my vision would be easy to correct, but personally I think glasses help break up my face. Seeing her without them is jarring, and serves to remind me just how long my face is. She’s also wearing makeup-something I never do for work. Somewhere along the line she has perfected the art of winged eyeliner, a skill I fear I will never possess. A quick glance at her hands shows me neat, oval-shaped nails painted red. Mine are lucky if they see nail polish twice a year.
What does she do, I wonder? What kind of job does she have that she has the time and the inclination to doll up in the morning? It’s all I can do to drag my clothes on, never mind apply foundation and mascara. How different are our choices? What paths did she go down that I turned away from?
My twin has picked up a basket and is dropping groceries into it. Peppers, onions, mushrooms. I glance down guiltily at the shopping bag dangling from my right hand, the contents of which are decidedly less healthy: microwave lasagne, garlic bread, a bottle of white wine and a Galaxy Ripple. Oh well, it’s a Friday. Anything goes on a Friday.
So she’s slimmer than me, girlier than me, and clearly more inclined to chopping vegetables on a Friday evening than me, but is she happier? My knee-jerk response is yes, but as I tail her over to the dairy section, the clip-clop of her heels ringing out like hoof beats, I begin to wonder.
Still unaware of me watching her, she reaches up for a bottle of milk, and is just about to grab one when her phone rings.
‘Hey, you OK?’
Hearing my own voice takes me aback. It’s higher in real life, softer, very different from how I hear it. It makes her seem smaller, less imposing somehow, even with the heels and the fierce eyeliner.
‘Work’s good thanks. There have actually been some interesting articles this week, although most of the writing’s still dreadful. People can’t spell for toffee. But if they could I wouldn’t have a job, I guess.’
So she’s an editor. The revelation triggers a surge of envy, but it’s tempered somewhat by curiosity. No doubt she did an English degree, as I would have done had I not discovered my love of languages aged fourteen. I want to ask her where she went, what texts she studied and what she thought of them, what classification she got. I want to ask how she got into editing, if she likes it, and what the downsides are.
I don’t ask her any of that. How could I? I can’t spring out from behind the kiwi fruit and start quizzing her about her life. She’d think I was insane. Maybe I am. I’m the one loitering behind a fruit display, spying on an alternate version of myself, unsure as to whether said version is real or just a hallucination. And there she is, buying groceries and having a perfectly normal adult conversation.
‘Did I tell you I’ve got a date tomorrow evening?’
My head snaps up. This is an unexpected turn of events. She has the career but not the relationship. What else doesn’t she have?
Standing there watching her, it occurs to me that she probably hasn’t done half the things I’ve done. She can’t speak three languages or say she’s lived abroad for a year. And if she didn’t do those things, then she didn’t make the friends I did. I try to imagine my life without those friends in it, but it’s like trying to imagine the world without a sky.
Where will she go after she is done here? Is there someone waiting for her at home, or does she live alone? There is something deeply saddening about the idea of her carting her vegetables home to an empty flat, and I find myself hoping that her date tomorrow goes well.
How quick I was to assume that because she wears smaller clothes, works in editing and has some skill with makeup brushes, her entire existence must be picture perfect. That her experiences must trump mine. And how quickly my envy evaporated when I learned that she is single.
She doesn’t have it all. Neither of us do. She has her career, and I get to go home to a wonderful man who treats me like gold, who doesn’t care that I’ve gained weight, or that I can’t do winged eyeliner. In a choice between my relationship and her career, I know which one I would go for.
I do something unexpected then. I turn and walk out of the shop. I leave her there, still chatting away, still telling her friend who isn’t my friend about a date I will never go on. I leave her to her English degree, her editing job, her high heels and polished nails. All the experiences I could have had but didn’t, I turn my back on them right there. She can keep them, and I will keep mine.
‘It’s all just swings and roundabouts,’ I tell myself as I exit the shop. Actually exit this time. Relationship vs career. My life experience vs hers. What is vs what could have been. The thing is, out of swings and roundabouts, I have always preferred swings.