“Hello mate, it’s so good to see you,” said the stranger, as he gave my arm a warm, gentle squeeze of affection. He stared at me, concern in his eyes. “How are you feeling?”
“Fine, thanks,” I told the man, a bit bemused that he was behaving as if we were very old, very close, friends. He looked to be around twenty, my own age, with overlong brown hair and a neat moustache.
“Well, I’m late for a meeting with my Head of Year,” he apologised, beginning to walk away. “I can’t believe it’s you! I’m so glad you’ve come back! Let’s meet up later and have a long catch-up, yeah?”
“Why not?” I agreed. As I was about to give him my mobile number, he rushed off with a wave.
Blimey, I thought, the guy was probably drunk or on drugs and was confusing me with someone else, but even so, it was a nice way to be greeted. Blimey, if everyone at this university was as laid back and matey as this character, I was in for a pleasant three years of study. Mum and Dad thought that psychology was an unwise choice of career, but the machinations of the human mind have always fascinated me, and I had been delighted that my A-levels had turned out to be good enough to be accepted at this prestigious place of learning.
Maybe this bloke had been a nutcase, someone who greeted every new student like a long-lost friend, I wondered?
I had rocked up to the main reception ten minutes ago and was feeling nervous and lonely, a lost soul amongst the others, some of whom were chattering excitedly to each other, nervous giggles and anxious faces stretching out as far as you could see. This was the first time I had lived away from home, and the accommodation department was my first port of call, and their office was not easy to find. The other freshers, like me, were easy to spot: alone mostly, looking around warily, wondering what the future held. Would we make friends, fall in love, be successful, enjoy the learning process, regret taking on the student loan? It was all a gamble, and this was the first day we’d begin to find out if our gamble was likely to pay off.
Then it happened again. A man was walking past, saw me, and paused for a moment, staring.
“It’s James, isn’t it?” he asked, looking at me. “James Brown?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“And you’ve decided to come back! Great, I think you’ve absolutely made the right decision, and, my goodness, pal, it must have taken a shitload of courage to come back here.”
I frowned, wondering what on earth he was on about. “Courage?”
“But then you always did have balls, didn’t you, James? Someone said you had a fight with a guy, and never once backed down. Well, it’s really good to see you. Catch you this evening in the bar, eh? When we’ve sorted out our accommodation?”
“I can’t wait to tell the others that you’ve decided to come back.”
And he was off.
That’s when I remembered a recent American TV documentary, where a new student turns up at a university and to his amazement, he gets recognised by a number of the other students. It turned out that, unbeknown to him, he had an identical twin, who by coincidence had actually been a student at the college he was himself reporting to, and the other students mistook him for his twin.
But he had been adopted, and I knew that I was not. And I also knew that I did not have a brother at all, let alone an identical one. A doppelganger? Maybe, but how could my doppelganger also share my name?
They gave me a room in the freshers’ accommodation block, and after I had deposited my huge rucksack there, I came back to the main campus, looking for the refectory, hungry after my long train and bus journey.
As I was looking for where to take my tray, searching out an empty table, an attractive dark haired girl came up to me.
“James!” she gushed, putting her arms around my waist and kissing me on the cheek. “Why didn’t you tell me you were coming back this year? Are you sure you’re up to it? After all you’ve been though.”
“All I’ve been through?” I answered in surprise. “Sorry, it’s very nice of you to come up and talk to me, but how do you know my name?”
“How do I know your name?” She stared at me, frowning and shaking her head. “It’s Caroline. Caroline! Surely you remember me? It was me that found you and called the ambulance!”
“Ambulance?” I stared at her in astonishment. “Look, I’m really really sorry, but I just don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m delighted to meet you, but the fact is that I’ve never seen you before in my life. I’ve come here as a fresher, knowing not a soul, and you’re the third person who says they already know me. You must all be confusing me with someone else.”
“Someone else who looks like you, and has your name? How would that be possible? Oh God, James, I think maybe you’ve come back too soon. All this stuff has been messing with your mind.”
Caroline sat with me in the cafeteria, and didn’t speak as we ate our meals. Then, she fiddled with her phone, and passed it across. “Read that article,” she told me. “It’s from the local newspaper, from almost a year ago.
Student Slasher. Was the heading of the article. It went on:
Psychology student James Brown was subjected to a savage attack from his girlfriend, Cinderella Jackson, in his room at Newtown University. Mr Brown is in a coma in a critical condition in the General Hospital, having received 57 serious stab wounds, any one of which could have proved fatal. At this moment it is described as touch and go whether he will survive. His attacker, Cinderella Jackson, is said to be suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, and admits she doesn’t know what prompted the murderous attack. She reportedly attacked a previous boyfriend, and has a long history of violent psychotic behaviour. She is currently detained on remand in an undisclosed psychiatric hospital, sectioned because medical professionals consider her to be a danger to the public. James and Cinderella’s friends at university had reported that the couple had been ‘madly in love’, having been inseparable since the moment they met each other on the first day of the psychology course they were both attending. Heartbreakingly, it appears that James had apparently told friends that he fell in love with her from the moment he met her, and felt as if she was going to be the love of his life.
“I just don’t understand this,” I said in confusion, watching the words merge together on the tiny screen, unsure of their meaning.
“As I said, it’s probably too early for you to come back here and repeat the first year, as if nothing’s happened,” Caroline went on. “After all you nearly died, and have been suffering for months. Maybe you should go home and take stock of things. Your memory has obviously been affected. Trauma can have all kinds of strange effects on you.”
And then a funny thing happened. I happened to glance at Caroline’s phone home page, and instead of this year, 2018, it seemed to say 2019 – I reasoned that I must just be overtired, and misread the 8 for a 9.
An easy thing to do, right?
After meeting Caroline, taking her phone number and thanking her for telling me this crazy story I felt an overwhelming tiredness come over me. I just made it back to my new accommodation in time to crash out on the bed, fully clothed. I must have slept for the rest of the day and all night. And when I woke up I felt completely at peace, totally refreshed.
Faint memories surfaced of yesterday but nothing really was clear. Already, my chat with Caroline was fading, as if it was some kind of weird dream. Even though I can remember all the details of it now, back then it was all just hazy, not real, much more like a crazy nightmare.
Once in the corridor I met the matey guy with the moustache, who’d been so over-the-top friendly to me yesterday. When I said hello, expecting him to turn on the charm as he had previously, he was merely polite, as if he didn’t know who I was.
“It’s James,” I told him, surprised at his cool manner. “We met yesterday.”
“Did we? Oh, right. Well, it’s good to meet you, James. See you around.” While he was friendly, his manner was suffused with that pinch of reserve we keep for new acquaintances, the defence mechanism of not being over friendly before you know what the person is like.
Strange. Very strange.
The peculiar experiences of yesterday had to be some kind of weird dream, I reasoned. And the details were already merging into forgetfulness, the way dreams always do. Mercifully so in the case of nightmares like I had just had, of strangers recognising me and telling me crazy stories. What kind of stories had they told me? I couldn’t remember them now.
And then, I remembered that yesterday there had been some talk of a freshers introduction talk in the Picador Library, and I realised that I’d better move fast if I wasn’t going to be late.
After that, something truly incredible happened. This girl was coming towards me, and as she turned in my direction, her smile, and her mane of long lovely red hair and her captivating expression knocked me for six.
So this is what it’s like, I realised.
Falling in love with a stranger.
This was what it was like!
Seeing her face, and knowing that she is ‘the one’.
“Hello,” said the girl, not breaking eye contact, apparently as mesmerised at seeing me as I was with seeing her. “Are you on the psychology course?”
“Yes. I’m James. God, I know this sounds crazy, but do I know you? The moment I saw you, I felt as if we’d already met.”
“I feel exactly the same, James, isn’t that odd?” She couldn’t take her eyes off me, and she licked her lips. And as she moved closer, I had the urge to take her in my arms, ached to hold her close, knew in that moment that I wanted to share my life with her.
“It’s wonderful to meet you, James. I’m Cinderella. Cinderella Jackson.”
(image courtesy of Pixabay, with thanks)