His first thought was to tiptoe back out of the bedroom, embarrassed. Silently scolding himself for a fool, he wondered whether he was dreaming. Sleep-walking maybe, though he’d never done that before. Not as far as he knew. After a moment’s pause for thought, he pinched his cheek. It hurt. He tried pinching his forearm and that hurt too. Not asleep, not dreaming. Probably not. Who could tell with dreams? He was sure that some dreams had settled into his memory as realities, ethereal but now a part of his being. They were there now, like an almost itch, a sensation he couldn’t quite perceive. Crazy, now he came to think….
That was it!
He’d gone mad. That followed reasonably enough. For how could he be standing stupefied in the middle of his own bedroom and also be asleep in his bed next to his partner of thirty years? If it was him? Which it couldn’t be. That would be insane. He would be insane for thinking it. Stark, staring. But mad men didn’t rationalise, did they? Lunatics weren’t logical. And he needed to understand. That’s what drew him to stay put and look more closely. All he could see was the back of the figure’s head and an arm stretched out across his partner. Not his partner, his partner!
What struck him next was jealously. That outstretched seemed protective, possessive. His blood ran cold. His partner was having an affair. And here was the gigolo in his bed, caught in the act: In flagrante delicto! But it wasn’t much of a ‘blazing offence’, was it? Caught in the adulterous act of sleeping soundly and wearing a striped nightshirt identical to his own? And a lover who slipped in for an illicit assignation, albeit dormant, in the few minutes when the cuckold got up in the night to urinate. Ridiculous. But, when he thought about it all through, what didn’t seem so farcical, or indeed surprising, was that his partner should seek a lover. The imposter in their bed was the most exciting thing that had happened there for years.
The hair on his neck and arms suddenly stood on end and his flesh prickled with goose bumps. Whatever it was, this was certainly an intruder of one sort or another. And intruders were alien and dangerous. That was the defining rationale here. Trembling, he quickly cast around for a weapon, settling only on his partner’s wooden hairbrush on the dressing table. Tip-toeing across the room, he picked it up and held it in front of him in both hands. He felt immensely foolish. But from here he had a slightly better view of the intruder. Almost certainly male by the height of him, though he was very slim. His hair was turning grey and thinning, tousled in sleep. He ran his fingers through his own hair and then began to brush it, all the time fixed on the intruder. The action soothed his spiralling panic. The intruder looked so unnervingly familiar that it made his stomach pitch and he felt dizzy.
A twin brother? An identical twin brother? But he didn’t have any siblings at all. And his long-gone but endlessly ordinary parents hadn’t had any secrets. Again, not as far as he knew. When it came right down to it, though, he decided he didn’t know much at all. Shame, a kindred spirit might have been….
That was it, a prank. Maybe that followed also. A desperate logic. Voracious for ratings and so ever-increasingly macabre in their conceptions, some reality TV show was playing a trick on him. He looked around for signs of camera, microphones, wires… Nothing. But they’d be good at that, concealment, their stock-in-trade. Some illusionist with delusions of grandeur, imagining themselves a behavioural psychologist, had set him up. He’d seen TV programmes where they made people do the strangest things. Murder, almost. But if he did leap across the room onto his own bed and beat the imposter’s brains to soup with the hair brush, would they come from somewhere to stop him? Would they be in time? And would they be insured? They probably hadn’t thought of that, weren’t that together. He’d read in his newspaper of accidents when minor celebrities and ordinary people signing up to do dangerous acts and extraordinary deeds: jumping motorbikes over cars, surviving in the Artic or the Sahara… The nerve of it. In his own home. His castle. Why, he had a good mind to… He gripped the hairbrush tightly. But would it be murder? Manslaughter?
He took another step to that he could get a better look at the imposter’s face. It didn’t make sense. Who would want to set him up, see this dwindling middle-aged man lose it on TV? Not much of a spectacle.
Maybe the intruder was just the worst burglar ever, a thief in the night who had simply been overcome with the need for a nap and stolen into bed! He edged closer to the bed again. So, why was this burglar wearing the same nightshirt as him? And wasn’t he a bit long in the tooth for the robbery game? But maybe that’s why he’d succumbed to sleep? It was imperative that he get a good look at the intruder’s face. He shuffled a little nearer, peering into the deep shadow that masked the man from him, a shadow cast by his partner in the thin moonlight that cracked between the curtains.
It could be an elaborate act of revenge, of course, but he’d surely never given anyone cause. He reviewed his life. In the nano-seconds that analysis took, he dismissed revenge. If only his life had been that interesting. He’d never done anything despicable nor distinctive, not even decisive really. Nothing much real. If only anyone hated him that much, felt anything that strongly for him. Maybe his partner? Could one have a violent sense of apathy, lassitude or detachment? Wouldn’t that be a contradiction in terms? Vengeful ennui? His partner might just be bored enough to conceive of something this macabre. Just to rouse him perhaps, to ginger him up, put some life into him. Then it came to him.
He was dead.
And he… Must be a ghost. He took a fearful step closer to the bed, watching for the rise and fall of the intruder’s chest as he breathed. Nothing. So, it was true, he’d died in his sleep. So, why was he still here? But then again, where did he think he was going? He’d never believed. But he was somehow sure that he should just be gone, non-existent. Not here, looking down on his own body. Is this how it was, death? Was this limbo, would he have to wait here until he was redeemed? And how long would that take? What had been his sin, anyway? Was it sinful to lose interest in life, including your own, as the world sapped the aspiration and the joy from you? Was it sinful to feel lonely and alone, to fall into languid step, trudge hopeless through a pointless pantomime to an unremarked demise? Maybe his sin was simply not believing? How long would he have to stay here? Electrons flared and flashed in his brain. And, though it lasted mere moments, this dispiriting reverie became an unendurable stretch in time.
The imposter snored.
He took an involuntary step back, barely stifling a scream.
He was alive! No, he was alive. So where did that leave him? He moved deliberately right up to the edge of the bed and leaned over, peering at the intruder, craning his neck. Definitely alive, no corpse and no dummy. And definitely him. Himself. No doubt about it. So, not merely an intruder, not a dream being, a figment, a gigolo, an actor nor a wraith. Not a twin. As far as he could tell. But then, as he’d already established, he couldn’t tell very much for certain.
What was a kindred spirit?
Something suffused him, another wave of fear, yes, but something else, something more: dizzying exhilaration. If the imposter was him, well not him but as near as dammit is to swearing, then he was free. Scot-free! Light-headed, he had to catch himself to avoid pitching forward onto the bed and waking his liberator up. And he definitely didn’t want that, not now. His mind was racing. He could just gather a few things and leave, go now. No more bills to pay, no more absurd steps on the dreary treadmill to non-existence to plan with his partner. No more silent, healthy breakfasts. No more fruit, wheat bran, green tea, nor kale smoothies! No more hospitals and clinics, prostate examinations and stool samples, This… This facsimile could stay here and try to stave off disease, court a frigid immortality though joyless moderation.
He, himself, was at liberty to leave, make a break for it. No ties, no obligations. The world was his oyster! Except…
He hated oysters.
And, if there was any vestige of joy left in him, it was the affection he felt for his books, and especially his music, the comforting familiar encompass of this house, his easy chair which had moulded to him. His bed into which he had impressed his thin body, into which he could settle every night, secure. His bed, not his bed. This bed ain’t big enough… For three. It wasn’t him who should leave, the imposter. There was no escape in flight, anyway, just other dues to pay. It didn’t make sense. This was going to take some thinking through. Ever so gently, he sat down on the corner of his bed…
And when his partner woke up he was already gone.
That had never happened before, not in thirty years. Worried, his partner got up, donned a dressing gown and went downstairs. From the kitchen came the sound of him singling. Believing the strangest things, loving the alien. Another thing that never happened. Although he listened to a lot of music, he never sang. Had never ever whistled before, even tunelessly. Through the glass-door of the kitchen, he could be seen cutting the rind from bacon with the sharpest knife from the drawer. There had been no bacon in the house. The knife was used for kale for…
Hands softly cover his partner’s eyes and his voice whispers.
Boy, do we have a surprise for you!
And then his voice again, in gleeful unison now as he emerges from the kitchen.