The gold cufflinks have a single diamond set into the centre. The soft flowing creases of the suit have a relaxed ease which can only come from bespoke tailoring. The grey-white hair has been preened and groomed this morning already, perhaps by a valet?
“To Hammersmith my man.” He points with his cane in the direction of the road ahead. The deep voice has the velvet undertones which age often brings to a man's throat.
Then a laugh. An easy mirthful laugh which must come often to this voice.
“I see you are Harold too.”
The taxi driver – our Harold nods his head. He is not generally a talker. Strange in this profession, but the weariness of the years hangs heavy on his shoulders – our Harold's shoulders.
He does enjoy the driving, yes, but the competition now, and the stresses of each day make this more of a job than it ever used to be.
He used to, our Harold, be up with the lark. With a leap and a bound, be dressed and pressed, ready to face each day with a song in his heart. Chattering away the hours with the rides made them melt into the mists of time – the hours.
Now each hour comes in a heavy block of sixty minutes. Huge, lumpen things which must be chipped away.
The Harold laughs again. Melodic. He is in harmony, casual ease.
“I'm Harry now of course.”
Harold takes another look in the rear-view, his face makes a face, not his eyes – years of practice.
Two thirds jealousy, a pinch of contempt, a roll of the eyebrows.
Our Harold starts to feel the shabbiness of his cab. The torn seat cover he knows is by that Harold's right leg. The grimy glass of the partition. His own grey-white hair starts to feel thick and greasy to itself. It cringes and tries to look very hard as if it is not past due a cut.
“You know Harold, I hope I can call you Harold, we could be brothers, you and I. The prince and the pauper!”
Taxi-Harold frowns. His back stiffens. He glances at the face again. Laughter lines in a real sun-tan. Green eyes, not unlike his own.
“With I the pauper of course, and you the prince - riding free- King of the road!”
“I have to go where the fares want. It’s not really freedom.”
This guy is too irritating with his 'my man' and his gold topped cane. Who on earth carries a cane anyway?
The Valkyries ride forth. Harry takes the call. Low voiced agitation. He is impatient and sounds pressured by the caller. So it isn't all rosy in Harry's world.
Harold feels bad about feeling smug. He is a nice man after all. Everything is not quite so rosy in his own world either. His back twinges when he turns to look at the passengers. His knee is starting to feel slightly dodgy.
Money worries? Of course. Who doesn't? He feels it in his arms when he opens the bills. Don't know why, he has a thing. It’s an arm thing. He knows most people have a stomach thing, but for him its arms. Wobbly feeling like leaden weights in the pits of his arms. No, not his armpits, oh never mind.
“No, a few more minutes... Maybe half an hour...Yes...I don't know... yes, no I know it's him.”
It has been much worse lately. A few months when he has only just made ends meet...a couple of trips to a pawn shop, nothing too serious – there's nothing like the lies we tell ourselves.
Harry hangs up. There is silence for a while as he stares broodily out of the window.
“I'm a rich man you know Harold.” he says slowly. The two pairs of eyes lock momentarily in the mirror. One pair is open with the honesty of the revelation, one wary.
“You probably can't begin to imagine.”
“Well you're lucky.” Harold says gruffly.
Another laugh, less mirthful.
“Yes, some might say I'm lucky.” But his mouth turns down. He looks for all the world like a sullen school boy who has been told that he can't go on the school trip. Some of the sparkle is certainly gone. He has slumped.
“You have no idea what it’s like. I've got an image to maintain, all those companies to run.”
“Sounds like torture.” Sarcasm.
“Don't get me wrong there are perks! Seats in the Royal box, private jets, five star luxury and more, but it gets tiring you know. We are no spring chickens are we?”
“No, it's more than that, you got kids?”
“Yes, two girls.” There's a photo of a smiley family group on the dashboard. Harold is at the centre of happier times.
“Of course,” Harry says, looking at the photo. “Yeah, me too. But I never see mine. Kitty maybe once a month when she wants a top up, Mags hardly ever. Never even seen the grand kids once – paid for all their schools though.”
“Can't get rid of mine,” says our Harold.
“Kate lives with us with her little Georgie, don't know what we'd do without that little scamp. Peggy is just down the road a bit. Her lot are in and out all day.”
“Tch,” deep sigh. “So you really are the lucky one eh?”
“Wouldn't mind a bit more cash, you know? But can't complain really.”
“How would you like to be the richest man on the planet?” Harry says gazing wistfully at the passing buildings.
Harold thinks to himself: “Oh gawd, I hope he isn't going to offer me money. What's that TV show called? 'Secret' something?”
There is silence for while. Harold has told this man more than he has ever told any other single passenger. But it feels good having something better, you know? It's not all about gold and diamonds is it? I'll see your gold cufflinks and raise you one happy family photo.
So his shirt has plastic buttons, so he has worn the same jacket all week, so what?... Richest man on the planet, yeah, right.
Harold tries to sneak a look for hidden cameras. Harry is waving that cane around a bit too much. Hope there is not a little spycam in there.
Suddenly Harry notices where they are.
“You know, I grew up somewhere around here,” he says. But the mood is darker again. The sun has gone behind a cloud. The world is greyer.
“It was called Pimlico I think.”
“Still is!” says Harold irritably. Let's just get to Hammersmith already.
“What? Oh yes.” Harry seems genuinely stalled for a minute, then regains his composure immediately.
“Still!” He says cheerfully, “Mustn’t dwell in the past right?” He taps the back of Harold's seat in a friendly way he thinks.
“The rotten apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” Harold thinks to himself with a sudden wry smile.
What's going on? Harold is a nice man! Just something about this customer he does not like. Something in him makes him feel repelled.
There should be more of a connection if they grew up in the same area, but...and he doesn't remember any other Harolds around at the time he was growing up.
Harry's eyes have the misty far-away look of those who are remembering the past.
“I used to start each day at six in the morning, come rain or snow or shine,” he says, mostly to himself it seems.
“Take my bag of papers from Mr. Patel,“ he laughs again. “It was bigger than I was!”
Harold shrugs, there were lots of Mr. Patels in those days.
“I remember there was always a gang of boys who hung around by the station. What was that big lad called? Billy?”
“Barry,” Harold says almost without thinking.
“That's right. Barry! Oh, I was afraid of them. Specially him. He was so big.” Another laugh.
Oh yes, Harold remembers Barry Wilkins' gang. The tough boys who chain-smoked and thought they were so cool with their quiffs and drainpipes. The road in front of him disappears for a second as he sees himself turning the corner and coming nose to knee with the 'gang' standing closer than usual. That horrible sinking feeling as his guts poured out through his socks. Barge through them, bag of papers above his head, or turn back the way he had come?
His heart is thumping even now as he remembers countless hours trying to come up with ways to make life bearable while still having the 'gang' in his life. But the light turns green and he is back in the present day.
They mostly left him alone. He was too young for them to bother with. But they didn't even need to speak, it was so terrifying just to see them there that he almost always ran the other way.
Each man sinks into reverie for a few minutes.
Harold is thinking, “He must have grown up on Sheffield Street. That was the posh end. Didn't know anyone from there.”
Harry continues, his eyes still in the past,
“I remember once, they were really out to get me.”
“Same for a lot of us kids in the area,” Harold mutters under his breath.
Harry says, “Back home from school, running all the way, to my house with the green door, satchel on the banister and in to see me Mam.”
Harold starts. He glances in his rear view mirror to find that Harry is staring keenly at him.
Harry continues relentlessly.
“Mam would be doing the washing in the corner of the kitchen. Ruth would be sitting in a tin bath by the fire.” Harry's eyes twinkle in the mirror.
“'Ere, what's going on?” Harold says. A joke's a joke. This is taking it a bit far.
“Oh God, I really hope this is not some TV show,” Harold thinks to himself.
“He's not going to be my long-lost brother from Australia is he?”
Only yesterday Harold has seen a programme in which a 66 year old woman finds out for the first time that she has a twin sister. No thanks,
“Do I know you?” he asks at last. He really doesn't want to know.
“Harold,” Harry says smiling. “Don't you remember? Once it got round school that you tripped up Lesley Wilkins in assembly?”
Harold nods. Clear as if it was yesterday. Sitting up straight as you can in assembly, cross-legged on the floor. That way they pick you to leave first. Lesley trips up and turns round to glare at him. He never even done anything.
Of course as soon as Barry hears about this, he tells his whole gang to get him after school.
Oh the day spent in dripping agony, staring as the clock ticks closer and closer to four pm.
“How do you know about that? I don't remember another Harold in school.”
“Harold!?” Harry is smiling insanely in the mirror at him.
“Stop it, stop saying me name like that.” He pulls up at the side of the road.
Just as well:
“I'm you.” Harry says.
The ground does not shatter. The earth does not grind to a halt - because Harold does not believe him.
“Of course you are mate, now hop it!”
Harry insists: “I'm you Harold... I'm rich and I'm you – from a parallel world.”
“Stop saying that!” Harold is fed up of the joke. Some fake TV show with some fake trendy TV types sniggering at his reaction in a van round the corner.
“Get out of my cab.”
“Wait, no.” Desperate. “Look, I can prove it. Don't you remember that day?” Harry speaks quickly now to get all his words out.
“You went another way home to try to avoid them, But Billy Henshaw told them.” He is panting heavily. “They were waiting, don't you remember?”
Yes, all the pictures are in Harold's mind as Harry describes them: The boys waiting for him at the end of his street. He had not even done anything, but now he was in for a beating.
“You stood up to them didn't you?” Harry is speaking softly so that he does not break the delicate thread which now links both men to their past.
“I got the beating of my life,” Harold says throatily. “It wasn't for nothing I done. I hit back as hard as I could, but me Mam had to come and stop the fight. She picked me out from the middle of them and carried me home.” He looks down, ashamed.
There is a pause, then:
“I ran away Harold,” Harry says.
“No-one knew about that fight, cos there never was one. No-one to call me 'Mummy's Girl' in the playground. No black eye. I saw them and just ran...went the other way round. That's when we split off into different realities. My scientists have pin-pointed it to that exact day.
Since then, we have been on different paths. I did not get bullied at school. I did not lose my confidence.” His voice trails away. “I made it rich. Made millions in the rag trade.”
Silence as Harold takes this all in.
“So what? Why are you telling me all this? Why do you think I'm going to believe anything you say, you lunatic?”
“I want to swap places,” Harry says sheepishly.
Harold has nothing to say to this.
“I've been watching you. In my universe. I am the richest man in the country. No, really! I have all the best technology and the best minds at my disposal.”
Harold has his hand on the radio. If this crazy fool gets dangerous then he can call for help straight away.
“I know,” Harry says not meeting Harold's eyes now. “I know about your problems. You have what, a month? two? before the bailiffs come?”
Harold's indignation deflates like a slow leak.
“I know about the insurance policy and those pills you've been hiding in your drawer – I'm sorry Harold.”
“So?” Harold says, “Who do you think you are?”
“I've told you Harold, I'm you.” Harry says earnestly. “Call me your guardian angel if you like. I have bought some cash with me, not much, just a few millions. You say the word, and I can call my men to zap you into a life of luxury – just like that!” He snaps his fingers.
“But I couldn't leave Jean and the girls...” Harold says.
“Come on,” says Harry, “What were the pills for? you've been thinking of leaving them for a while now haven't you? I'm giving you a better option that's all.”
There is uncertainty in Harold's eyes.
“What about you? Just gonna leave your family like that?”
Harry lowers his gaze again. “Jeanette ran off years ago. Dunno why she was with me in the first place, and the girls, well, you know what they say. I'm a bank balance to them, not much more, they probably wouldn't even notice.”
“I don't want you near my family,” Harold says quietly.
“I won't go anywhere near them if you like,” says the silky-smooth Harry from the universe next door. “It'll be just as if you've disappeared, and then an 'anonymous' donation.” He holds up finger speech marks, “of a few hundred thousand in an envelope through the door. They'll be looked after.” His eyes are pleading in the mirror.
“But why? What's in it for you?”
“It's all got too much for me Harold. I just want a simple life – maybe driving a taxi. I told you, I’ve been watching, I know all about you.”
“But I couldn't run companies...”
“Don't run yourself down. I've done it!”
“Anyway, that's not what you'd have to do. It's all sorted. You would be the figurehead Harold, that’s all. Enjoying the high life. Summer in Monaco, Winters in Aspen.”
“Or if you don't like to ski, I've a little place in the South of France, or Florida. Just imagine it Harold. Anything you ever wanted.” Harry waves his arms in a grand gesture. “Servants at your beck and call.”
“You would never want for anything, ever again.”
Harold is stuck.
“I must tell you something Harold.” Harry says cutting in through his thoughts. “There are only a few minutes left. They've ripped a hole through, or made a corridor or something, I wasn't really listening, but in a few minutes I'll be pulled back through to my side. Unless you want to go instead.”
Harold is thinking. What a choice. Even if he had ten thousand years he would not be able to decide what to do, but he only has a few minutes. If he says 'yes', then he will be a rich and pampered man. Just like winning the lottery really. If it’s 'no', then carry on as he is now. Scraping by. Scratching a living.
Yes, but Jean and the girls. He could never leave them. Could he?
“Actually,” Harry says softly as if he has been listening in, “You would all be much better off if you said ‘yes’ wouldn't you?”
“Could I come back?” Harold asks suddenly.
“What?” Harry is thrown by the suddenness. “Er, sure you could. I'm here aren't I? My top men know all about this. You just have to tell them you wish to return.”
“Yes.” Harold has decided. “What do we do now?”
“It's the back seat.” Harry says. He pats the thin cloth with his gloved hand.
“They've made this into the 'door'. In a few minutes, I press this button when it lights up, and whoever is sitting here will be zapped back through.” He has pulled out a large button from his coat pocket. It looks like one of those press lights which you stick into the back of your wardrobe. It is red and for some strange reason it has the words ‘Press Here’ printed onto the front.
“You just have to come and sit here and wait. That's all.”
It seems ridiculous to Harold. There's not enough rehearsal. There should have been an invitation card last week, some time to prepare. This, it’s just too hurried. Would you go to your wedding with a day's notice? Would you try to fly a plane you've only seen a picture of?
Both Harold and Harry get out of the cab. Harry takes a deep breath of the new air. He looks as if he has been released from a straitjacket. His restrictive life that holds him in is already starting to fly off him like little birds of confinement leaving his body.
There is a bit of fumbling confusion as the men nearly bump into each other. The same height, weight and colouring. They do not look like twins, too similar for that. They are two different people played by the same actor in a film.
“Er, I think we should swap jackets,” Harry says.
Harold shrugs and takes off his old black coat with the plastic buttons and receives the luxurious cashmere camel overcoat. It fits perfectly, comfortably like the tailored garment that it is. He puts his hands deep into the pockets. There are some keys, something which feels like a mobile, some change. He takes a coin out and peers closely at it – looks just like an ordinary ten pence piece.
If nothing else has happened today, a mad old fool has given him his wonderful coat and about two pounds thirty seven pence in loose change.
Harry has taken what he wants out of his old coat’s pockets and is now trying to fit things into Harold’s black coat. Mostly looks like papers and the button of course.
Harold shrugs again. He climbs into the back seat of his own cab. His arms are tingling like crazy. The little weights have turned into Mexican jumping beans and are doing little dances. He shivers and rolls his shoulders, trying to settle his nerves. A large part of his brain is telling him that this is a hoax. This man is a conman who wants to steal his taxi, or worse.
Nevertheless, he closes his eyes and waits. His breath is a fine mist between the worlds, not daring to go in or out. Inside his closed lids he starts to see blues. Different colours of the colour blue. Teal, Indigo, Azure, Cerulean. Harold is a taxi driver, he does not really know the names; they all look ‘blue’. Swirling hazily around each other but then growing in brightness and intensity.
These are joined by greens, then pinks, oranges, reds.
He opens his eyes and the colours are still there, but through them, faintly, he can see Harry grinning wildly at him from the front seat of the taxi cab waving the crazy button. It has not quite lit up yet, but has started a dim glimmer.
He can feel himself being pulled gently away. It starts in his arms first, a little tug. Is this one moment the reason he has felt every feeling in his arms throughout his whole life? Did his body have a memory of what would eventually happen to him and try to warn him in some way?
Harry is now nothing but a faint blur. He is waving a white rectangle at him now. It must be the 'envelope' for Jean. Good.
He is saying: “I'll look after them Harold.” But it sounds distorted like a slowed down 78 record.
Suddenly, it seems to Harold as if there are two Harrys in the front of the cab. Another one has appeared in the front seat.
What's going on? The new Harry looks shocked, while the old Harry's smile turns slowly into a gasp of surprise as he notices him for the first time.
Harry number two is grabbing for the zapper button. He turns it over in his hands and flicks a large switch at the back to the OFF position.
The feeling in Harold’s arms stops suddenly and all the colours disappear all at once. He is back in his own reality.
“’Ere,” he manages to say. “What’s going on?”
“This man is a crook,” says Harrytwo.
“No I’m not,” says Harryone snatching his button back.
“He was going to send you off to his universe and live your life here driving a taxi.” Harrytwo.
“Yes, I know,” says Harold a little impatiently. “He’s spent the last twenty minutes trying to talk me into it!”
“Well what’s he offered?” says Harrytwo. “I’ll double it.” He takes a white envelope from his coat pocket and waves it at Harold. “There’s hundreds of thousands in here for Jean,” he says.
The two Harrys stare at each other hotly.
“This moment has taken me twenty years to create,” Harryone says. “You have just ruined it.”
Harrytwo has his own little zapper button. He waves it in Harryone’s face. “What do you think I’ve been doing for twenty years chopping liver?”
The two men get out of the cab and start a weak tussle. Each one fighting for the right to stay and drive Harold’s cab, they try to grab each other’s zapper buttons.
Harold watches for a while, bemused. No-one has fought over him like this before. He is not sure what to do.
After a while, he climbs back into the driving seat. They haven’t noticed. He very gently and carefully nudges the ignition. His good old taxi cab purrs into life.
He edges the car a little way forward. He is not running away. No, of course not. But if these ‘hims’ keep fighting nearby, they are in danger of hurting themselves on his car. He wouldn’t want that on his conscience.
He glances down and what he sees makes him accelerate away at top speed. Behind him, a multicoloured glow suddenly means that the fighting Harrys have zapped themselves somewhere else. And beside him on the seat are two white envelopes.
©2012 A. B. Syed
I really hope that you enjoyed the story!