IMPERSONATION by Tamsin Kate Walker
Genre: Literary Thriller
I caught a glimpse of myself today. Not the me of my mirror image, nor the me of my forgiving mind’s eye, but the me that strangers see. I saw my description on the pages of a book, recognised myself in the words of a man I have never met.
I was on the train to work, looking by turns at the passing blur of the flatlands outside and the opening pages of a book, when I was overcome with a nagging feeling that something was amiss. Something unsettling had been said or done, but I had no idea what. I waited for it to either fade or crystallize, but it did neither. Instead, it lingered uncomfortably, following me off the train and taunting me throughout the halting bus ride to my shabby third-floor London office.
It may have eluded me all day were it not for the ritual flirtations between my supervisor, Hazel, and Simon, who comes around selling lunchtime baguettes from a basket. I used to buy from him when I first started working here, but I wasn’t very good at the small talk in which he wraps his wares, so now I take a packed lunch instead. Hazel does not.
“I think I’ll try the smoked turkey with pesto. And I’ll have a blueberry muffin to go with it,” she purred at him.
“All right, darlin, anything for my favourite girl…”
“Will you have bagels tomorrow?”
“Sorry flower, I can’t make it tomorrow. I’ve got to go to my auntie’s funeral.”
Funeral. The word hit me like a train speeding out of a long, unlit tunnel. My mind ran away without me, darting back through time, looking for the source of this sudden resonance. Eyes screwed shut and fingers pressed hard against my ears, I picked through the remnants of last night’s dreams and re-read the morning’s newspaper headlines. Nowhere could I recall a funeral, so I replayed my journey to work. I watched myself step into the busy carriage, felt my relief at finding a seat, heard my silent debate over whether to remove my coat, and saw myself decide against. I eavesdropped anew on the hushed chat of commuters around me, re-opened my bag and retrieved my book. My book felt relevant to my search, but I could recall nothing specific. So, while Hazel continued to play coy with Simon, I started to read it again.
“This story, Dear Reader, begins one summer not so very long ago, on a train filled with office workers and the heavy odour of their collective August existence. Among them were three scantily clad girls who wore their rude rolls of fat with misplaced pride, and through whose poorly painted lips came unsavoury breath telling unsavoury tales of their sexual conquests of the night before.
A middle-aged woman who sat, shaking uncontrollably as delirium tremens lay siege to her body, listened with envy to their lurid bragging. Mentally breaking her vow of sobriety, she sulkily mouthed the words ‘make mine a double’ at a boy perched on his father’s pin-striped trousers across the aisle. The child stared back at her with wide-eyed fear, brightening only when he caught sight of a bald man whose stomach was oozing from the gaps between the buttons of his inadequate shirt.
The ample man acknowledged the child with a wink and sought to entertain it by blowing his nose into a piece of newspaper. The father struggled to conceal his disgust, and repositioned the boy to face a younger, haughty-looking woman who, refusing to be drawn by any of what she saw, carefully smoothed the folds of the cream and red floral print dress she would be wearing to the funeral she would happily soon be planning.”
There it was, the source of the resonance. The mental relief was blissful, and I closed the book and leaned back in my chair to enjoy this victory over my sluggish memory.
But my triumph was short-lived, because something was still not right. Whatever it was, that something appeared to be connected to the book now lying face down on top of a stack of papers on my desk. I tried to ignore both the book and the feeling, but I couldn’t prevent my eye from wandering to the blurb on the back cover.
“The Ruthlessness of One Man’ is based on the physical appearance of a real-life London commuter. Perhaps she is sitting across from you, at your side, or is the one you just walked past. Perhaps she is even you. Whoever she is, Mr Walden’s interpretation of her life will leave you, Dear Reader, in no doubt that things are rarely as they seem. ”
I knew nothing of The Ruthlessness of One Man, except that I received it as a loyalty gift from the old-fashioned book club I joined a few years ago, that its author was man called Mr. Walden, and that I grabbed it from my kitchen table as I hurried out of my house this morning. But when I read those few lines about the real-life London commuter with whom I may once have brushed shoulders, they made me want to know more.
“It was hot inside the compartment, and although she felt it too, Davina had no intention of joining the chorus of predictable heat-induced moans and groans. She rolled her eyes at her fellow passengers’ futile attempts to fan away the inhospitable heat, mentally berating them for fuelling the very furnaces they were at pains to extinguish whilst simultaneously spreading the ghastly human smells that assaulted her every intake of breath. These she filtered by holding to her nose a crumpled lace-trim handkerchief. Each time she did so, she bowed her head just enough for her lank shoulder-length brown hair to fall forward and reveal a thin pink scar below her left ear.”
I think I am that woman.
I am not given to vanity, but the likenesses were too great in number to be coincidental. I read the words again with deliberation, checking them against the facts of my life, and asking reason to guide me to my senses. It stressed that of all the commuters in the country, I am not the kind to stand out and inspire writers to their pens. I may have shoulder-length brown hair, but so do thousands of other women. I may also have a cream and red floral print dress, but I know for a fact I am not alone in that either. Even scars are not hard to come by. But when it came to the line about the crumpled lace-trim handkerchief, reason reached a dead-end, and left me there.
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1) I live in Berlin
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