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The Doubles

Read Thursday, 20 Dec 2018

Chris Somerville closes in on his doppelgänger.

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Illustration of two similar-looking faces, in different colours, looking away from one another

I spent some years teaching at a university on the Gold Coast, on a campus filled mostly with palm trees and air that was always too warm, failing to write a thesis on absences in writing, trying to make a case that whatever was withheld, that was some of the most important stuff.

At the time, most of the teaching staff were getting fired. I was a sessional teacher and there were hardly any of us left in my department. But there was one other sessional teacher who would take his classes into the shared spaces around campus – the cafeteria, the beach-volleyball court, the grassy area near the new lecture hall – and do nothing in them. He and the students would stand in a big group, evenly spaced from each other, and they wouldn’t move.

Later they’d discuss how people reacted to them doing nothing, either by taking photos with their phones or joining in, or hushing their conversations to whispers as they walked past the group. This was what the experiment was for, to gauge how people reacted to this void.

What does this other Chris Somerville do? Is he friendly or mean?

By all accounts, people loved these excursions. I would hear about them from my own students and from other lecturers and I would go home each night and fail to write about missing details in books and how this meant something more significant than we thought.

It was around this time that I started to hear about someone who looked a lot like me. He was in Melbourne, this person, where my partner was living, and I would get texts from people saying they didn’t know I was down there for the weekend, or asking why I didn’t say hello to them when I passed them on the street.

I would get these texts a lot, from work colleagues, or people I didn’t know very well, and even my own cousin. I assumed that it was just one person, rather than a few people who looked like me, because I’d always write back and ask where they thought they’d seen me, and it was always in the same suburb or the suburb next to that suburb.

Things got worse once I moved south and started teaching at the University of Melbourne. My students would tell me about a person who looked like me, walking around the same area I’d just moved into myself. When I asked them if they thought it was me who they’d seen, they’d look at me like I was stupid and say, ‘No, of course not’.

Illustration of two similar-looking faces, in different colours, looking grumpily at one another

No one wants a second version of themselves going around, even if you think they’re doing good things for you.

People shouted ‘Hey’ at me from cars. A jogger came and clapped me on the back while I was on my bike, and when I turned around in surprise, he looked at me properly and said ‘Oh, forgive me’. Sometimes, if I was talking to a stranger, they’d pause for a moment and tell me I looked familiar, had we met before? And I’d have to say, ‘Maybe, but there’s this guy going around that looks like me too’.

No one wants a second version of themselves going around, even if you think they’re doing good things for you. Eventually this person will kill you. During the First World War, the people of France built a second Paris a few miles down the road, a proper version filled with lights, so when German planes flew overhead looking for something to blow up, they’d bomb the fake lit-up Paris while the real Paris remained safe in the darkness.

I didn’t mention this to the driving instructor when he told me, as we drove slowly through some empty streets around a primary school, that he thought he might have met me before. I was too nervous about crashing the car to go into the whole thing. He’d already said to me, ‘The worst thing about driving is the other drivers. You can control what you’re doing but these dickheads will get you, and you need to be able to react.’

What does this other Chris Somerville do? Is he friendly or mean? Does he also stay awake until the middle of the night, staring at the ceiling above him, wondering if all the choices he’s made have been the wrong ones? Only later would I think to say to the driving instructor that I don’t have to worry, there’s someone else walking around out there who looks like me. Maybe he’s the one the bombers will find.

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The Wheeler Centre acknowledges the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation as the traditional owners of the land on which we work. We pay our respects to the people of the Kulin Nation and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders, past and present.