I know instantly I am somewhere new. It’s not a blinding light when it changes. It is more like pins and needles that sweep over my body. The sound, the smell, the touch of air on my skin. Nothing is quite the same. Except me. I’m still sat down. I’m still wearing a cream blouse and dark trousers. I’m still me. As to everything else, well, I don’t know how big the change is, but it has affected everything. Like I am now looking at the world through a mirror or maybe someone changed the aspect ratio on the universe.
I don’t know how I got here so I don’t know how to get back. It’s not like I’ve fallen asleep. It happened when I was wide awake and shifted in the blink of an eye. There was no fuzziness in between. A moment has passed, and I’ve lost everything.
I could be mistaken except it is unmistakable. I look round the room. It is an office. Just like mine. Populated by a dozen or so workers.
“Lou, are you OK?” Lou – Louisa – is my name. The woman who spoke is sat opposite. She is wearing a pale pink top just like her counterpart in my life, “you look very pale.”
I try a name, “Sophie?” she nods. Her eyebrows are raised.
“What just happened?” I ask.
“What do you mean?” She chews her bottom lip.
I hold my hands up while I scour the desk in front of me. “Something must of just happened. This is different.”
“I don’t think anything has.” she’s flustered, “We’ve all just been sitting here.”
“I had a meeting at 10:30,” says the bloke behind her.
“Yeah, OK, Pete had a meeting.” she regains some composure, “Lou you’re not right. Do you need a drink of water, a cup of tea, um something…?” her voice trails off.
“I don’t belong here,” I tell her, “This is not where I’m from.”
“Of course, it is, Lou, you work here.”
“No! Not I don’t. You may think I do, but you’re wrong.”
She looks at me speechless.
“Surely you can see it. Do I look the same?”
“She’s had her hair done,” the bloke says, not looking round.
“Shut up Pete,” she says, “I don’t know.”
Other people are turning to look at me. I start to talk too quickly, “I’m not mad. I know I’ve been down since July but we’ve fine now. We’re just going to take a couple of years off.”
This woman who shares my office and my life looks at me with incomprehension.
“It was the third…” I begin, but her blank look is terrifying. A woman that looks like her, has shared my office and my life, but this one knows nothing about me.
I’m starting to hyperventilate. I’m lost and I have no way to find where I belong. I stand up knocking a handbag to the floor. It looks like mine. It is not but it will do. I grab one of the coats by the door.
“I need some air,” with that I’m gone.
I wander through streets that look familiar. Past people who look like they belong. My head is swimming. How can it be when everything is normal that the sound of my footsteps is alien?
I’m travelling within a bubble. People part in front of me as I pass and then close behind me. I listen to every sound. I sniff the air. There’s a slight odor of cigarette smoke but mostly it’s just cold. I can hear traffic and the hum of people, footsteps and chatter. A pattern on the pavement gives me a sense of a hazy memory. I can’t tell if it’s an experience or something else I am recalling. I see a man looking at me. His gaze is fixed on me longer than I am comfortable with. I put my head down and move on.
I would say I’m going mad, but I know this is not where I was. I am sure of it. More than I have ever been about anything else. Maybe that is the problem. Insight, I half remember, is the key in mental illness. I think that means that if you know you could be mad, you probably aren’t. But I know I’m not.
I realise where my feet have taken me. I have found my way to a bus stop. In my world this leads me to a place I don’t want to go. Home. But I don’t have any other ideas, so I wait and when a bus arrives I get on.
“Watermill Lane?” I ask hesitantly.
“Are you sure, love?” he replies.
“Yes,” I tell him.
I realise I don’t know if I have any money. I search the handbag and find a purse. When the coins touch my skin, I know that it’s their money not mine. I look closely trying to see what’s different.
“You want two of the gold ones,” the driver says.
I hand him the money. “You need to sit down there,” he says in a slow, loud voice and jerks his thumb over his shoulder.
I sit and watch the streets. Was that roof sloped that way this morning? Was that shop sign green? Was that car parked there? These questions have no answers but behind them drumming away is a much bigger one. Where am I going and what will I find when I get there? I am alone in a world without friends and family. Am I still me if all connections are severed? I think of David. He is my everything. The last few years we have got closer than ever. It’s just the two of us against the world. Loss can drive a couple apart but ours is a failure not a loss. But I can’t lose him. I can’t face going home if he isn’t there. He is the one thing I cannot live without. An empty house will never be a home.
And suddenly I need to know and a couple of stops away from home I see the library and I press the button and race to the front.
“You don’t want this one, love.”
I ignore him. He pulls away shaking his head.
In the library I find a kindly looking woman.
“I need some help,” I say.
“Yes, you do,” she replies with a smile.
“I need some old newspapers and books with facts in. World leaders and events. You know, like who’s the President of America.”
“I know,” she laughs, “There are days when I can’t believe it either. It’s like living in a parallel universe.” My hand flies to my mouth. That’s it! Two words that finally makes sense of what I have been feeling.
“To be honest,” she continues, “your best bet is the internet.” She points to a row of old machines in the corner
Of course, how stupid! So, I settle in and begin to search. Prime Minister of the UK has the right name and face. First Minister of Scotland too. I don’t know who the First Minister of Wales is. Chancellor of Germany and President of France. It all works right up to Iran and North Korea.
I move on to dates. I check both World Wars, 9/11, the Berlin wall, the first and second man on the moon. I don’t recognise the name of the third man but “The Commander of Apollo 12” sounds right. I check and recheck everything I know, and nothing is out of place. I even wonder if this is the universe where they faked the moon landings and I lose a lot of time looking at conspiracy webpages. They are just as nuts here. I start looking at pages on parallel universes. Each universe is just a tiny bit different. Perhaps there are no differences here but somewhere on the other side of space a planet is missing. What if this world is good enough? What if I could make a home here? Learn to quieten the niggle that tells me I do not belong?
I look up from the screen and see it is dark outside and cold. I have nowhere to go but the one place I must.
The street is the same. The house is the same. The door is the same and there is a key in my handbag. As I get it out, I see the car parked opposite. It is the same make and model as the one that was there this morning. The colour seems to have changed. I try to remember what colour it was. But I can’t quite manage it. The orange street lighting is not helping because I am not sure what colour I am even seeing. I close my eyes and rub my temples. I open them and turn back to the door.
“Lou!” David cries as I enter.
“I’m ok,” I tell him.
“Sophie rang, you left work.”
“Yeah I…” I begin.
“Do we need to call someone? Or take you to the walk in?”
“It sounds like an unusual panic attack.”
“You mean weird,” I laugh to myself he does not join in, “you think I’m mad don’t you? I don’t belong here Dave, everything has changed.”
“What’s different?” he asks and the truth is I don’t know, “Well you’re wearing different clothes than you were this morning,” I tell him.
He looks down at his t-shirt, “Well I got crayon on the other one.”
“Crayons?” I ask.
“Yeah, we’ve spent the afternoon drawing pictures, do you want to see?”
And I slap him because he shouldn’t make jokes like that. Not after all the tears and the pain. Not after three failed rounds of IVF. But there is something in the expression on his face that stops me in my tracks.
And I’m running upstairs and when I get to the top there is our bedroom just as it was but the doors to the other two rooms are shut but I can see a dim light in one so I open the door. Inside the office has been transformed into a temple of pink and fluffy toys and there is a single bed along one wall. And I step forward and there I see a sleeping face that echoes my own and it’s then I start to weep.
And for the first time. I don’t know if I’m home or not.