Tuesday, October 15, 2013

How I Met Myself

Chapter 1

A strange meeting

  I was walking home from my office one January evening. It was a Monday. The weather was very cold, and there were some low clouds around the tops of the buildings. Once I'd left the main road, there weren't many people in the dark, narrow streets of Budapest's Thirteenth District. Everything was very quiet. It felt as if the city was waiting for something.

As I walked I thought about what had happened at work. I had argued with one of the Hungarians I worked with. It was the first serious problem since I'd arrived. I was trying to think what to do about it, and I was also hoping that my wife, Andrea, had made one of her nice hot soups for dinner.

After about five minutes it started to snow heavily, so that the streets were soon completely white. As I was walking along a very dark part of one street there was the noise of a door shutting loudly inside a building. Then I heard the sound of someone running.

Suddenly, the street door opened and a man came out of it and ran straight into me. I fell over into the snow, shouting something like, 'Hey, watch where you're going!'  My words were loud in the empty street. The man turned to look at me for a moment. 'Sorry,' he said very quietly, in Hungarian, before walking quickly away.

What I saw at that moment, in that dark winter street was very strange, and I felt very afraid. Because what I saw was me. My face looking down at me. My mouth saying sorry.

Chapter 2

Getting to know me

Perhaps I'd better tell you something about me before I go on with the rest of this story.

My name is John Taylor, and I'm 34 years old. I'm nearly two meters tall, with light brown hair and eyes and I have a moustache. I'm a computer programmer. Four years ago, my company in Bristol became part of a very large multinational computer company - you would know the name if I told you. I was offered the chance to go and work in their Budapest office. They needed someone to lead a young Hungarian team in an important new piece of work. I was very pleased. It was a better job in the company, and I thought it would be really interesting to work in another country, one I'd never visited.

Like many British people, I thought I knew three things about Hungary: the Danube cuts the capital into two halves, Buda and Pest; the Hungarian football team had once beaten England 6 - 3 in London, and people eat hot goulash all the time.

There was a lot to learn! And I learned quickly.

The company sent me to Hungarian language classes at a special school. Hungarian is very different from English. I had one-to-one lessons with a pretty teacher called Andrea.

She was a lovely young woman, with dark brown hair, blue eyes and a beautiful smile, and she seemed to understand me very well. Our lessons soon became lessons outside class hours, and slowly we fell in love. Eighteen months later we got married.

Each day of the week I walk to work and back from our flat in the Thirteenth District. I work in a new office on Vaci urca, and it takes me about thirty minutes to get there. My usual working day is half past eight in the morning to six in the evening. I generally enjoy my work. The offices are light and modern, and I like the people I work with.

Andrea works at different times during the day, teaching Hungarian to foreigners in a number of schools and companies. She also teaches some students at home.

We live on the Pest side of the city, not far from the Danube. The old part of the Thirteenth District where we live is an area of narrow streets full of small shops, bars and restaurants. It still feels like an old city. And it was in one of these streets that I met myself.

Chapter 3

A search

Now I'll continue my story.

I lay there in the snow for a few moments, trying to understand what had just happened. My first thought was, 'Where has the man gone?' I looked along the street, and was just in time to see him turning right at the next corner.

I got up immediately, brushed the snow off my clothes and ran after him. He crossed the road and went into another street. When I got to the corner I saw him going into a doorway. I walked quickly along the empty street, and found it was the entrance to a wine cellar. It was under a block of flats, and you had to go down some steps to get in. It was one of those Budapest places where working men meet to drink, talk and smoke. I looked down the steps. There was the low noise of conversation and a smell of wine and cigarettes coming up to meet me.

I stood in the snow for a moment, deciding what to do and looking around me. I had a strange feeling about going down into the wine cellar. I wasn't sure who I'd find there. I looked at my footprints - the dark marks my feet had made in the new snow. My footprints. . ..but only my footprints! Where were his? I looked back along the street. There were only my footprints. My mind was running round and round in circles trying to understand what was happening. I stepped down into the wine cellar. It was the first time I had been into that kind of bar.

Inside, it was suddenly warm after the winter streets. It was dark, and my eyes took a few moments to get used to the darkness. I looked around me - there were a few men dressed in working clothes, standing in small groups, drinking their wine and talking. I looked over to the bar where I expected to see my man buying a drink. But there was just a young man with fair hair talking to the barman. The place was not very big, and I walked around and looked at everyone carefully.

My man was nowhere to be seen. I walked over to the bar.

'Where did the man go?' I asked the barman.

'What man?' he asked back.

'Just before I came in,' I said, 'there was another man who came in. Where is he?'

The barman looked at the blond man with a look on his face that seemed to say, 'Who's this mad man?' I realized that I sounded strange.

'I'm sorry,' I started again. 'I'm looking for a friend - I thought he had just come here. That's why I came in. Are you sure nobody came in just before me?'

'See for yourself,' said the barman, showing me the men in the room.
'But is there no other room here?' I asked.

'Only the toilet,' said the barman, looking at the corner. I went over and opened the door. It was cold and dirty.

And empty.

I didn't know what to do. I decided to stay and see what happened.
'A glass of dry red wine, please,' I said to the barman when I got back to the bar.

He gave it to me. I paid, and then I moved over to an empty place.

There were no chairs, so I stood up against a high narrow table. A television was on in the corner of the room. I watched the news and waited. Andrea didn't know where I was. Nobody came in or went out. I drank another glass of wine. After an hour, I left. I didn't understand anything, and it was not just because I had drunk too much wine on an empty stomach.


'You smell of wine and smoke!' said Andrea, as I was standing by the front door, taking off my coat and boots. 'What have you been doing?'

'Oh, I just went for a drink with Peter,' I said. 'We argued at work today, and I wanted to talk about it because there is an important meeting tomorrow.'

Don't think badly of me - I usually tell my wife the truth! It was just that as I walked home, I had decided it would be better not to say anything about what had happened. When I thought about it, it all sounded so stupid. Someone ran out of a building and knocked me down into the snow. When he turned back to say sorry, I saw that he looked just like me. And then when I followed him he left no footprints. And he wasn't in the wine cellar I saw him go into. It really was all too stupid. So I told her the story about Peter and kept the truth—if it was the truth—to myself.

By now, I wasn't sure if I really had seen someone who looked the same as me! But when I went into the bathroom to wash before dinner, and I looked at my face in the mirror, I knew that I was right. It wasn't just someone who looked a bit like me; it was me that I'd seen.

That night, in bed, I couldn't sleep. I kept thinking about what had happened over and over again. Andrea knew something was not right. She moved across the bed and put her arm around me.

'What is it, love?' she asked quietly.

'Oh, nothing,' I replied. 'Just those problems at work again. Don't worry.'
And I kissed her.

Until I met myself, I had always thought myself to be a normal, intelligent person. I thought I understood more or less how the world around me worked, even my new world in Budapest. But what happened that night in the street had changed something inside me, and I couldn't get it out of my mind. I kept seeing myself on the ground in that dark, snowy street, looking up at myself. I felt terribly afraid.

Chapter 4

7 Felka utca

As I walked to work the next day - Tuesday - I planned my evening. I had decided that last night the man had come out of the building at about five to seven. I had just been in time to see the start of the seven o'clock news on television in the wine bar, and only a few minutes had passed between him knocking me over and the news. I wanted to go back there that evening at the same time.

The day seemed to take a long time to pass. At work, I had the meeting with Peter to talk about the difficulty of the day before. We talked about our problems and came to a friendly agreement. I had lunch in the office restaurant as usual, but didn't say more than a few words to anyone. In fact, during the day, two or three people asked me if I was feeling ill. I said that I was fine, just thinking about a difficult work problem. That evening I left the office at six o’clock. I walked quickly to the street where I had first seen the man. Soon I found the door; it was number 7 Felka utca.

While I waited, I looked at the street carefully. It was short and dark, and there was still a lot of snow around from yesterday. On either side of the street were blocks of flats which had been built in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Most of them were dirty and in bad condition. On many of them you could still see the holes the gunshots had made during the fighting in World War II or the 1956 revolution. The blocks were all five floors high with big front doors. At this time on a winter evening only one or two kitchen windows were lit as people made their evening meals.

I waited, walking slowly up and down. It was cold. I felt a bit like a private detective in an American film. A few people walked along the street, but mainly it was as quiet as it had been the night before. As the time got near, I stood opposite the entrance to number 7 with the wall behind my back. Nothing happened. At seven o'clock, a woman with a small dog came along the street and went in through the door, but then there was nothing to see. And there was certainly nobody like myself there.

I went over to the door of number 7, and looked at the names beside the bells for each flat. I don't know what I expected to find. But there were just the usual Hungarian family names, and a couple of small companies that had offices on the ground floor of the building.

Then I walked to the bar where I'd gone the night before. I walked along Felka utca, crossed the road and went into Gergely utca. I found the bar, and went down the steps and into the smoky room. I ordered a red wine. The barman looked at me.

'Did you find your friend, then?' he asked.

I was surprised. 'I'm sorry?' I replied, coughing into my wine.

'The man you were looking for last night,' he said. 'Did you find him?'

'No, I'm afraid I didn't,' I answered. 'That's why I'm here, really. I was hoping I might see him tonight.'

'What's he like then, this friend of yours?' asked the barman.

'Well, he's. . . er. . . he's. . . ' I stopped. The barman looked at me, waiting.

'He looks very much like me, actually.'

'I can't say that I've seen anyone like you here,' he said. 'But then I only bought the place six weeks ago, so I don't really know everyone who comes in here yet. Just the usual people who are in here now.'

A man came up to the bar, and I moved away, watching the end of the news on the television and drinking my wine. I looked at the people in the room - they all looked just like those I'd seen the night before. But there was no­ one like me. I decided to leave.

When I got home I was pleased to find a note from Andrea on the kitchen table. It said that she was out teaching a new student—so I didn't have to make up any more stories about where I'd been.


That night I had a strange dream. In my dream, I heard the noise of a door shutting loudly. I was running out of a building and I ran into someone. A man. He fell down. I turned to say sorry. I saw that it was me lying on the ground. I woke up feeling afraid and cold in the dark, although the bedroom was nice and warm. The strange thing was that it was as if the dream had changed everything round: because in the dream it was me who ran out of the building, not the man, and when I looked at the man on the ground it was myself.

Suddenly, Andrea woke up.
'What's the matter, love?' she asked sleepily, turning on the light.

I couldn't speak at first. She sat up and looked at me. 'You look bad,' she said. She sounded worried. 'Do you feel ill?'

'No,' I started. 'No. It was. . . just. . . just a dream.' 'Poor darling,' she said, holding my head and kissing me on the cheek. 'Come on, let's try and get some sleep.'

I lay down again. She turned off the light and soon went back to sleep. But I lay there in bed, looking at the four walls in the dark, watching the dream over and over again in the cinema inside my head.

I felt afraid, but I didn't really understand what it was that I was afraid of.