Philippa Schofield’s short story, My Other Self, was winner of our creative writing competition this year. It describes an everyday commute that becomes the ride of your life. Find a quiet moment to settle back and take it in.
It was the hat that shocked me first and foremost. I never wear hats – my head is ridiculously small, and all the normal sunhats that I’ve ever tried to buy engulf my face leaving only a snippet of nose and a mouth to be seen. Good sun protection, but not quite the Look. So no, I definitely don’t do hats. And yet there I was at the other end of the tube carriage in the morning rush hour on the Northern Line, wearing the most outlandish hat ever seen.
It was stuffy and crowded in the train, all the usual delights of someone’s Vindaloo the night before, stale beer, garlic and armpits rolled into one stagnant aroma that enveloped us as we all swayed our way to the City and another week of mindless work. The trick to survival here of course is never to engage your fellow man (or woman), to disappear into the free Metro newspaper, or when space doesn’t permit, to stare blankly ahead and think of nothing.
It took me a minute to acknowledge what I was looking at through the forest of arms hanging on to the overhead bars. She was slim, blonde and middle-aged, probably fifties based on the tone of her skin. She had found herself a ledge seat at the end of the carriage, and apart from the hat, she was just another commuter in a grey trouser suit on her way to the office to do her week’s work.
Only, the strange thing is, I recognised her immediately, down to the uncomfortable bunion misshaping her right shoe, the crooked top teeth, the slightly stooped back. I recognised her down the carriage, quite simply because she was me.
At Euston, when a lot of people get off and others get on, I pushed my way down the carriage to move nearer to myself – just to have a closer look I suppose, but also to investigate that hat. It was made of bright green felt, wide-brimmed, and it was decorated with all manner of shiny baubles – sparkly flowers, glistening fruit, a small blue bird, and as its centrepiece a frond of proudly-splayed iridescent feathers.
The other me seemed to think nothing at all of wearing this monstrous attention-attracting creation, but was just flicking through the Metro and keeping herself to herself. As luck would have it, my hat decided to disembark at Moorgate, which is my own stop, so off I got following me and my hat up the escalator and out onto the street.
What to do? Approach and ask myself why I am wearing the crazy hat, or just forget it, remember to cut back on the intake of magic mushrooms on Sunday evenings, and go to work? As luck would have it, the hat solved the dilemma for me, and my hat-wearing self turned round and addressed me brightly:
“Excuse me, I wonder if you could tell me how to get to Broadgate from here? I know it’s close by, but I don’t work in the City and I’m a bit lost”. Me sounded just like me, which was rather disconcerting to say the least.
“Of course” I said, mainly to the amazing hat, “It’s sort of on the way to my office, so I can take you there if you like”.
“Oh, thanks”, said the hat-wearing me. We walked together round Finsbury Circus and then curiosity got the better of me.
“That’s a rather unusual hat you’re wearing – very, um, very beautiful, but quite unconventional”.
“Oh thank you!” my other self exclaimed, beaming with delight at me. “Thank you so much. I’m a milliner; I make hats for a living. Not usually quite so crazy as this one, although I’ve made some really interesting ones for Ascot in my career. I’m going to a convention of milliners in Spitalfields today and I just decided to throw caution to the wind and wear my favourite hat of all, and to hell with what all the stuffy commuters might think!”
After a moment, she added “Don’t I know you from somewhere? You seem awfully familiar?”
“No, I don’t think so, although I thought the same when I spotted you in the tube this morning. So you like making hats?” I asked as we neared our destination.
“Love it, absolutely love it. I’ve had the most amazing career, I’ve been able to be creative, earn enough money to keep the wolf from the door, never had to be tied down in front of a computer in an office. Honestly, I feel fulfilled – and I have two wonderful daughters to boot.”
I smiled. “So, we have one thing in common and all the rest to set us apart – I’ve never made a hat in my life, I’ve spent my whole career in an office goggling at a computer, but I also have two lovely daughters. Well, I hope your convention goes well, take care”.
“You too!” I saw my other self turn and wave as she headed towards Broadgate and I veered off to Liverpool Street. I heard the lorry blow its horn, I saw the cyclist toppled into the roadworks, and I saw the hat flung across the pavement and inadvertently stepped upon by a hurrying commuter. What to do? My other self had all but disappeared under the wheels of the cement mixer, there was pandemonium, and if I stopped to get involved, I would not just be late for work, but for the weekly managers’ meeting.
So I turned my back on the morning rush hour accident, on my other self under the cement mixer, on the beautiful hat trodden underfoot, on the daughters robbed of their mother, and I went to work, and earned some more money.
When I was a little girl, all I did was draw and paint, and make things and sing. Then I grew up and went to work in an office. I never made a single hat.