12 Tales From an Alternative Universe

At Nice airport I give a young man the eye, because he looks just like Peter, whom I know from a short shoot a while back and who happened to be in Cannes with his girlfriend about two years ago.

In a multiverse of all possible universes there is one in which I go up to him and say: ‘Hello Peter, how are you?’

He doesn’t know me, but by coincidence his name is actually Peter (he has that Peter glint in his eye), and he too thinks there’s something familiar about me, something he recognises, and so, so as not to seem rude, he gamely says: ‘hey, I’m very well, thanks, and you? – Are you here for the festival?’ I say yes.

‘Well, do you want a lift into Cannes, I’m here with my girlfriend?’ Ah, girlfriend here too, I think, but, why not? and gladly accept. As we talk on the ride while his girlfriend is conversing in fluent French with the driver, we get along swimmingly, and by the time we reach Cannes, we sort of realise that we don’t really know each other, but we both of us don’t mind and if anything feel we should get to know each other better, and we both pretend to of course already have each other’s numbers but let’s exchange them anyway, just in case, and we hook up for dinner and then have drinks and arrange to meet up again the following night. As it happens, his girlfriend is going to some do or other with some of her friends, so we’ll probably just be the two of us, and after another dinner, a few more drinks and then just one or two more, we realise that we do have a lot more in common than one might at fist glance imagine, and even what we don’t have in common we complement each other on perfectly, and so we probably have a bit of a kiss, maybe a cuddle. Perhaps even a bit of a snog. But then he thinks of his girlfriend and that he’s supposed to be straight, which doesn’t bother me too much (it happens to the best of people), but we go to see a couple of screenings the day after, and then his girlfriend and a few friends have invitations to a really quite excellent party on Monday, and we’re tagging along there as well. At some point we conspire to lose them or they us and we suddenly find ourselves alone again, and peacefully zonked, on the beach, with the still mild air drifting in softly and us drifting off equally softly, together, and by Tuesday, my last day, I wake up next to him, and he’s actually there and I realise: no, this wasn’t a dream and the wedding will probably be some time next summer…

I’m reminded of the incident with the handbag. The incident with the handbag happened with a man I could have imagined marrying, could perhaps still imagine, if not marrying then being together with, easily, comfortably, steadily. Uncomplicated. It happened before he married someone else. We were out drinking, as on occasion we were, and after doing so to quite some extent we took a cab home, as on occasion we did. We got into my bed to curl up with each other, as on occasion we would, to literally just sleep with each other, when he reached down his side of the bed and lifted up a nondescript brown leather bag and said: ‘and here’s the handbag.’

That made no more sense to me then than it does now, but I was categorically drunk, so was he, and I had my arm around him and I could not expect of myself – nor was I able to think that the world could expect of me – to compute the significance of such a statement and gesture at this particular juncture. He dropped the bag back down on the floor and leant into my chest and fell asleep, as did I, almost immediately.

In the hungover morning I held on to him for as long as I could, which was never quite long enough, but he had to go to work and I said I would deal with the bag. The bag, it turned out, was an ordinary woman’s handbag with the ordinary things you’d find in a bag: not that I looked through the bag in any detail, that would have felt intrusive. I fished out the mobile and called the number labelled ‘mum’. I told a bemused lady that by circumstances which I couldn’t strictly explain but that involved a friend and too much alcohol, I found myself, somewhat involuntarily, in custody of, most likely, her daughter’s handbag, and was keen to restore it to her forthwith. There must have been a follow-up conversation with the daughter herself (presumably on her home phone?) and it transpired that the daughter in question was an actress currently performing at a West End theatre, and that she had been out with a friend after the show and ended up for a drink at the same bar as we did. She was gracious if a little taken aback, but then who can blame her. We arranged that I would bring her her bag to the stage door. I picked up a bunch of flowers and a bottle of wine and brought her the bag, apologising profusely on behalf of my friend. My friend never mentioned the matter again. Nor did I. The actress may well have thought that my friend was imaginary and that I just hadn’t been brave enough to come clean entirely, but what did it matter.

Which is perhaps why I am reminded of this incident in the first place: it just didn’t matter. And I thought: this is what it would be like, would it not, to have a partner, an ‘other half’, when they did something inexplicable, and it really just didn’t matter. I know him well enough to know he wasn’t stealing a woman’s handbag. There was never any chance of him, let alone me, taking anything out of it and keeping it. And it obviously fell to me to return the bag to its owner, because I was capable of doing so and I had the time, while he had a job to go to, in Pentonville prison of all places. Plus I had sufficient distance from the incident itself to just handle it factually. It made no sense at all, but it made perfect sense. And so to this day I don’t know why it even happened. But then what do we ever know?

What do we ever really know…

(I once spent about an hour or so, incidentally, on the phone to someone who didn’t know me, nor I him. I’d recently arrived in London, I was living in my first flatshare in Gloucester Terrace and we had a plastic payphone in the hall. It rang. I answered. He said, hello can I speak to George, I said, this is George speaking, and we talked. About all manner of things. For quite a while. A long while. I had no idea who he was, but he sounded nice and I was new to town so I assumed that sooner or later the universe would reveal to me whom I was having a conversation with, probably somebody I recently met and hadn’t quite filed yet anywhere in my brain. Then he asked me how my new job was going and I said, what new job? I’ve been in my job for six months now, it’s my first permanent job since I moved here. And then we realised we didn’t actually know each other. We laughed and told each other it was nice talking and wished each other a good life and hung up. I wonder does he still tell the story too?)

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