Only two steak bakes lay on the shelf and three people stood before me. The first lady ordered a vegan roll. I breathed a sigh of relief and shuffled forward. The next customer took one of the steak bakes. He hurried out. I switched my attention back to the last one as my stomach rumbled. Next in line was a workman. I stared at his hi vis back and, in my mind, urged, “Go for a bacon bap!” He turned around and I realised I was mumbling. He frowned at me and turned to the cashier.
He growled, “I’ll let the desperado have it. Sausage butty please, love.” My tummy rolled a timid thank you and I edged to the display.
And that was when I heard him.
Just as I said, “Steak bake,” another voice overlapped my own with the same two words. The woman at the till took a step back and cocked her head. She grinned and flicked her regard between me and the person behind. I turned around and flinched. The next customer had identical glasses, a beard and bald patch. He wore the same blue waterproof, black trousers and brown shoes. I felt myself grow hot, but he appeared unphased. His mouth curved upward into a wry smile.
I heard the woman ask, “Are you together?” Neither of us spoke but we shook our heads in sync. My hands were shaking so I forced them into my pockets. His remained at his sides. I noticed a scar like mine on his right forefinger. The cashier glanced at the single steak bake. “I suppose you could halve it.” I coughed and my new-found doppelganger broke into a wide grin.
The Greggs employee pressed, “So you aren’t twins or owt?”
We replied, “No.” in perfect unison. He had a northern accent too. A lady further along the queue peered at her watch and sighed.
I felt a sudden nausea wash up my chest and flood my head. I pointed a trembling finger over my shoulder at the pastry. “You have it.”
My double beamed and I noticed he had a filling in the exact place I had. He touched my shoulder, and I stumbled back against the counter. He asked, “Are you sure, mate?” He seemed to have grown during the exchange. He had a strong grip.
I nodded and, through blurred vision, I rushed for the door.
In the street, I leaned against a wall and took deep breaths. As the panic attack faded, I composed myself. Vowing never to return to that Greggs, I stood at a crossing and waited for the red man to change.
A hand brushed my back and I jumped. He was standing beside me.
He said, “Sorry to startle you, mate. What’s your name?” I peeked at the traffic lights. Cars were still coming.
I stammered, “Erm, Malcolm.”
He clapped his hands and whooped. I flinched again. “I knew it! I fucking knew it! I’m Malcolm too!” He revealed his filling once more. “We’re both Malcolms! How mad is that?!”
I could feel other pedestrians’ eyes on us.
Bile was rising in my throat and my head was beginning to spin. He grabbed my hand and pumped it hard. He raised his face skyward and shouted, “Today is a great day to be a Malcolm!” More stares swept my burning neck.
I stole a panicked glance at the lights. A red man. I made a dash for it anyway. Car horns blared and brakes screeched as I broke into a blind sprint. I heard my double crying, “Malcolm, come back!” but I didn’t stop until I reached the top of the hill.
Hands on hips, bending to catch my breath, I peered back down the road.
There, I saw myself. The other Malcolm. Staring at me and stuffing the whole steak bake into his mouth. Brown sludge smeared his moustache and hung from his beard. Gravy oozed through his fingers and a steak lump slid down his waterproof front.
In the afternoon sun, he cast a long shadow. And his eyes were laughing.
Emma topped up my wine glass and eased back on the sofa beside me. She asked, “And this isn’t a wind up?”
I took a gulp before answering. “One hundred percent. Everything was the same. I mean absolutely everything! Even the scar and filling.” I held up my forefinger and pointed at the composite in my tooth.
She shook her head and grinned. “He even likes steak bakes.”
I scowled and reached for the bottle. “Don’t take the piss. It freaked me out.”
Emma laughed and held up her hands. “Sorry Mally. I’m only messing about. It’s just a lot to take in. Well, stay away from Greggs and you’ll be fine.” I could see it was difficult to resist teasing. My reaction would’ve been the same. I relaxed. Maybe I was overreacting anyway.
Emma leaned in and kissed me on the cheek. “Why don’t you grab a shower, love? You look knackered.”
I nodded and winced as I stood.
Concern replaced amusement on my wife’s brow. “Are you alright?”
I squeezed her hand. “Fine. Just a twinge.” I winked and blew a kiss. “Nothing a massage can’t fix.”
I didn’t tell her my entire body had ached ever since the encounter in Greggs.
I stared into the mirror in the gents’ toilets. My eyes were blood-shot and there seemed to be fresh grey flecks in my beard. I tilted my head. It was difficult to discern in the weak light. I splashed water on my face and returned to my desk.
A crumpled pile of unmarked essays lay before me. I put on my headphones, picked up a biro and began correcting.
I was midway through the stack when a loud voice penetrated my music, and I sensed a commotion in the office. With a sigh, I laid down the pen.
A tide of amused expressions was lapping at my desk. I heard laughter and then a voice, identical to mine, bellowed across the room.
“We met yesterday in Greggs! I can’t believe you work here too, mate!” And there was Malcolm. He towered above the colleague beside him. My double raced towards me and, before I could brace, I felt myself crushed in his iron grip. Breath exploded from my lungs and a light flashed in my eyes as someone took a photo. There were guffaws and somebody asked if we were twins.
Scrunched in his clamp, I flapped an arm against his back, more a submission than embrace. He gave one final, almighty squeeze and then released me. I flopped back in my chair and swallowed air like a beached fish.
My doppelganger plonked down on the seat next to mine. He was a full head taller, and his shoulders were broader. He unleashed a deep, resounding laugh and clapped my back. The blow rocked me against the desk and my computer monitor shook.
There was more laughter in the office.
I blinked away the blotches before my eyes and, ignoring the onlookers, whispered, “Can we talk outside?”
My double boomed, “Sure, Malcolm!” sprang from his chair and bounded to the door. I forced a feeble smile and trailed in his slipstream. He ploughed into an empty classroom and thudded onto a desk.
I stayed in the doorway and faced him. He was grinning. He reached up to scratch his nose and I noticed the scar had gone. I frowned.
Malcolm cocked his head. “Are you OK, mate? You look like you’ve seen a ghost!” He let loose another roar and his whole frame shook.
Was he bigger than the day before?
I sat down. My hands were shaking, and my voice croaked, “Listen…” I hesitated. “... Malcolm… I’m not sure it’s going to work with us both being here and-”
“Nonsense!” My doppelganger interrupted. “The Krays worked together… Spandau Ballet worked together… Don’t be so negative, mate!” I shook my head and stole another peek at his forefinger. The scar had definitely disappeared.
Malcolm glanced at his watch. With a resigned sigh, I noted it looked like mine. He grinned and said, “Lessons are starting, mate. Can’t be late on the first day. Catch you later!” He vaulted off the desk and slapped my shoulder as he passed.
The impact stung. I sat alone in the empty room and touched the soreness where he had hit me moments before. Then my heart began to pound.
A large liver spot had formed on the back of my hand.
I leaned in the doorway, let my bag drop to the step and caught my breath. We lived at the top of a hill, and I had stopped twice on the way up.
Emma swung open the door and stepped back. She covered her gaping mouth, but I noted the shock in her eyes. “Jesus, Mally. What’s wrong?”
I reached for my rucksack, but she snatched it from my hands and grabbed my arm. “You’re wet through, you poor thing. Quick. Let’s get you inside.”
Together, we staggered through the doorway, and I slumped onto the sofa. She handed me a whisky and stroked my sticky hair. “What’s happened, love? You look…” Her voice crumbled as she suppressed a sob.
I gulped back the brown liquid. My heart was thumping. I finished my wife’s sentence, “... older.” My quivering hand gestured to the bottle. Fresh wrinkles had formed. “I need another.”
I told Emma everything. We drank more whisky, and the evening became a blur.
The next morning, I awoke with a hangover from Hell. I staggered into the bathroom and splashed cold water on my face. Peering into the mirror, my dishevelled reflection appeared altered somehow. I leaned in closer, inspected my bald patch and called Emma. She tilted my head and assured me the bare area hadn’t extended, but I detected her nervous undertone.
We agreed it would be best if I took the day off. I don’t think either of us believed it would resolve matters.
The ringtone jolted me awake. I never took afternoon naps, but my eyes had closed as soon as I had turned on the TV. Disorientated, and fumbling with the handset, I didn’t notice the withheld number. “Hello.”
My head swam as I heard the augmented version of my own voice on the other end. “Mate, I’ve been worried about you. How are you?”
I swallowed hard and reached for a glass of water. My throat was suddenly dry. I croaked, “OK.”
There was a pause and then a long sigh like a wind gust blasting through an underpass. Malcolm resumed. “I covered your class. I think the managers thought it would be funny.” A chuckle vibrated down the phone. “The students said you, I mean me, looked well, mate!” He bawled with laughter again.
I held the phone away from my ear and waited for the racket to subside. Plucking up courage, I asked, “How did you get this number?” and steeled myself for his response.
There was another roar. I gulped water until my double’s hysterics subsided. This time, Malcolm lowered his voice. “The same way I got your address, mate.” He hesitated. Then I heard a growl. “Come out and say, ‘hello’.”
My mind detached itself from my body and drifted across to the window.
Standing on the driveway, Malcolm was immense. The steak bake-stained waterproof strained against his muscled torso. I saw he no longer wore glasses. Thick, black hair had grown over his bald patch. No grey flecks dotted his beard or moustache. He waved both arms and the sleeves ended at his rippling forearms. He raised a mobile to his ear and sang in a toneless voice, “You can make me whole again!” He jigged on the spot, tossed his Nokia in the air, twirled and caught it like a rock star with a microphone.
Time and space ceased to exist. There was only Malcolm performing a victory dance on my driveway. The edges of my vision became foggy, and I felt myself slipping towards a gaping emptiness. I heard my own shallow breathing and the handset dropped from my brittle fingers. With detached interest, I noted more liver spots were appearing on my skin. My legs buckled and I collapsed onto my knees. I sensed pain but it didn’t hurt. Everything was a long way away.
And then I heard tyres screeching. From the carpet, I squinted and saw a white flash as my wife’s car bounced up the driveway and thudded into Malcolm. He hurtled backwards and crashed into our garage with an enormous clang.
Emma’s panicked eyes fixed on my huge, inert doppelganger before her stare snapped in my direction. Strength was crawling back into my legs, and I lurched to my feet. Tottering with my hands on the sill, I signalled I was OK. We both returned our attention to my double.
He lifted his heavy head, blinked hard, and spat a blood-snot glob high into the air. We both tensed as it arced and plopped down onto the clean bonnet. My doppelganger rose to his feet and snarled at my wife before fixing his wrathful scowl on me. Bear teeth bared, he raised his fleshy finger and drew it across his own throat in a slicing motion. Like Medusa’s victims, I became paralyzed. Wrinkles resumed their inexorable journey across my forehead and my bones began to wither once more.
He flicked his glower back at my wide-eyed wife and flashed a bloody grin. Then, he extended his arms like an albatross and suddenly launched himself at Emma’s windscreen. As he soared, he raged, “There can only be one Malcolm!” and whumped into the glass. There was a sickening crack.
The noise shattered my paralysis. I half-ran, half-dragged my ageing legs to the front door, flung it wide and screamed at my doppelganger. “Over here you fucking…!” I didn’t finish my sentence before he was back on his feet and ploughing through the flower beds towards me. Petrified and defenceless, I slammed the door shut as his gigantic body pounded into the wood. I reeled as his full force slammed into the hinges again. Like a human battering ram.
Gripping the banister, I clawed upstairs.
Emma’s car horn blared but the banging continued. I was the prize. I had only one chance and then my double would be inside.
I limped into our bedroom and wrenched the TV from its socket. My legs and arms buckled under the strain, but I summoned every last morsel of strength in my geriatric muscles. Balancing the widescreen between my chin and knees, I swung open the landing window and heaved with all my might.
I heard the door splintering and a demented cry, “Heeeeere’s Malcolm!” He was almost in.
I counted to three and shoved upwards. For an instant, the TV tottered on the windowsill, and then it vanished. I collapsed to the floor as I heard a dull thunk below.
The pummelling stopped. And there was blackness.
I opened my eyes and smelled Emma’s perfume. Something wet was on my forehead. I heard her voice. “Can you hear me, Mally?”
She removed the flannel and edged backwards. Concern etched her brow. “Thank god you’re OK.”
I swallowed and asked, “Malcolm?”
She smiled but the anxiety remained. “You got him with the TV.”
I felt my shoulders relax. She was still peering at me in an unnerving way. It was more than worry. Disconcerted, I rubbed my scalp and my fingers brushed hair. I frowned. “Eh?”
My wife nodded. “Follow me.” She offered a shaking hand. I reached out and noticed my skin. It was smooth. I stood up and my jumper ripped under the armpits. The sleeves were almost at my elbows, and it was uncomfortably tight on my chest.
Trailing Emma, I realised my vision was blurry. I removed my glasses and suddenly the landing was in focus. I repeated the same one-word utterance, “Eh?”
My wife replied with an uneasy smile. “Wait until you look in the mirror, Mally.” As we walked into the bathroom, my forehead bumped the ceiling light.
And then I saw myself.
It has taken a while for us to adjust to my new size and appearance. Emma says she prefers me now, but I can perceive she’s still a little freaked out by everything. Who wouldn’t be?
We’ve had to make a few adjustments to the house too. Builders have enlarged doorways, and we bought a bigger bed.
I didn’t return to work. Too much to explain.
We never had to explain my double's demise either.
When we ventured downstairs, I had half-expected to see an elderly corpse resembling my future self on our doorstep. Instead, we found shattered glass, broken plastic, tangled wires and bent metal.
I nudged the TV debris with my toe and spotted a shredded rag. Emma and I exchanged frowns. I shrugged and kneeled to inspect the material.
That was the moment I knew we were safe.
In my hand, I held a blue, steak bake-stained waterproof.
Also by Mark Humphries...Faceless