Five-minute memoir: Russ Litten recalls the day he saw his double in Prague

 

I know nobody in Prague, not a soul, which is one of the main reasons I decide to move there. The last person I expect to see is myself. I always thought that the Doppelgänger only existed in Edgar Allen Poe tales. But I see mine in Prague.

I'd been there on holiday with my brother a couple of years before and had been astonished at both the beauty of the buildings and the low cost of living. You could enjoy a steak dinner with all the trimmings and a bottle of red in the shadow of a golden Disneyland-style castle for around £3.50. A night in a modest hostel was about a fiver.

So I work on building sites until I've saved up a couple of grand and take a coach eastward across Europe one Monday in 1997; the day after Princess Diana dies in Paris and The Verve release "The Drugs Don't Work". It is a sentiment that strikes a painfully personal resonance and I am glad to be getting away. I want a blank page somewhere strange and unknown.

Prague is fun at first, wandering around the bars and the clubs and the museums pretending to be Jack Kerouac. A 24-hour film with a cast of one and a plot of my own devising. I ghost around the city and get drunk on the heady buzz of freedom.

But anonymity's thrill soon wanes and a vague unease gradually starts to seep in. The absence of any responsibility or commitment has slowly hardened into a cold and joyless vacuum. I have nothing to do and nobody to do it with.

Just like the book had promised, I am filled with the unbearable lightness of being. Days and nights become meaningless. I am usually drunk by lunchtime. The future looms in front of me like an impossible thing and I don't know what to do.

Given the transitory nature of the city, any friendships I have made are fleeting. There is nobody to speak to and nothing to hang onto. Mostly I just point and nod and smile. I can't understand a single sign on any wall, cannot tune into a conversation on the underground. The city is closed to me.

I decide to find a job. After a couple of months washing dishes in an Irish bar I start teaching English at a language school; a job I am entirely unsuited to, given my shaky grasp of grammar and hard, flat vowels. But dishwashing has lost much of its romantic allure and my bankroll is dwindling. I need to put some goulash on the table.

So Tuesday and Thursday evenings find me mangling syntax to roomfuls of bemused young professionals, some of who can speak better English than me. I am keen but hopeless and it is mentally exhausting.

I catch a tram home after one such class, my skull buzzing with phrasal verbs and prepositions. It's a filthy evening. As the winter draws in, the Prague night-time air is often thick with pollution, the residue of the brown coal burnt by its citizens. A damp blanket of twinkling smog lays itself over the valley and catches in your throat. Clouds of nicotine star under the street lamps.

The tram stops outside the bright yellow light of a pizza place. It looks busy and warm. I debate the merits of pepperoni and tomato sauce on dough in a civilised setting versus a microwave meal on my lap while watching unfathomable Czech TV. I gather my books and bags together and stand up.

Then I see him. He is with a woman, the two of them at a table in the window. I see him in profile first; the nose, the hair, the shape of the face, the mannerisms even. It's uncanny. He looks exactly like me. It is beyond a strong likeness. He is me. Exactly.

I feel a sudden lurch of something then, a wild stab in the guts, something that feels like exhilaration, or dread, or both. I hadn't come to Prague to find myself. I had come to Prague to get away from myself, and yet there I am.

His companion spots me gawking. She gestures with her fork to the window. I can tell by her agitated urgency that she is saying exactly the same thing that I am thinking. Look, look at that guy. Look at him. He's your absolute double.

He turns his head to look and through the two sheets of rain-smeared glass I see the sudden shock of realisation, the bare astonishment on his face. He is my reflection, and I am his.

We stare at each other for a few long seconds. Then he smiles and raises a hand in small acknowledgement. I give a dumbfounded wave back and the tram pulls away from the stop.

Russ Litten's book 'Swear Down' is published by Tindal Street Press and is out in paperback now, £12.99

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