Did I dream of potted meat and fishpaste?

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The Independent Culture
Physicists tell us that the Universe is constantly budding and dividing; at every observed event, the Cosmos forks. That's what physicists say. I rang them up and checked.

But it's bollocks. Nothing of that sort going on here, in my fortress of solitude, down in the South where people come to die. I just looked out of the window. Clouds are building up, and little airplanes threading their way between them. Birds are pulling worms out of the ground and eating them, the filthy bastards. Old people strapped in their wheelchairs are staring at the English Channel, wonder if it's the English Channel they're staring at, and whether they're going to get Alzheimer's Disease one day, and why their daughter-in-law dumped them here, and whether it's the English Channel they are staring at. The shop down the road has a special offer on Teflon trousers, the product of a mind disease. (That's probably why the old people are strapped in their wheelchairs; they'd skid out, otherwise, at the slightest breeze or incline, no purchase to their trouser-seats, d'you see; over the guard-rails and into the sea, wondering if that's the English Channel they're drowning in.)

More observed events, in short, than you could swing Schroedinger's Cat at, but is the Universe dividing? It is not. No such forking thing. Physicists are talking rot. They always have. Ask them about gravity. Go on. They don't know. There's just the one Universe, plodding sullenly on its way, like a saloon-bar regular in a woolly scarf. Same thing, day after day: gravity, Quanta, Hubble Constant, Spice Girls. Sometimes I wish the bloody thing would divide, except that I bet I'd be stuck in the bit that got Carlton Television and stuffed-crust pizza. I'd be stuck in the bit with Time, ticking things off in his little notebook, and Reality, peering at me over his spectacles as he sucks his teeth and shuffles through his files.

But sometimes - only sometimes, but sometimes nevertheless - you get a hint that, behind the quotidian po-faced predictability, a parallel world of dreams and wonders might be waiting, biding its time.

I had such a hint the other day. In Chichester, there is a cathedral and a shop selling old folk's clothes; a fishmonger and a bookshop; an explorer's outfitters and a wine merchant; a theatre, a hotel and a shimmering tear in the fabric of reality.

I didn't notice the shimmering tear until nightfall. Next door to my hotel, across the car park, towards the main street, lights were shining from the windows of a long, low building with a faintly municipal aura, suggestive of stackable chairs, amateur dramatics and people accustomed to eating baked beans warmed up on a gas ring. Music - horrible music - was leaking out into the night, and as I got nearer I could see people dancing with faces of solemn bemusement, like old people wondering whether this was the English Channel they were staring at. Back and forth they moved, side to side, towards the windows and away again, a thin tide of solitudes ebbing and flowing, turning towards each other with an antique salute, then reforming again like a line of mute revenants in a mushroom dream.

"Ha! The Shippam's Potted Meat and Fishpaste Company Social Club Line- Dancing Evening, I'll bet," I said to myself with a superior metropolitan smirk, but then everything went monitory and brazen round the edges, and a shiver ran down my spine as though someone had walked over my fishpaste sandwiches. Behind me stood a well-kept old factory building; but there was no hum of machinery, no plume of steam. I had assumed it had been converted into loft apartments for grinning mummified people preening themselves on having got back into the property market at its lowest point, and now, with the boom, well, say no more ...

But the ghostly dancers suggested otherwise. After dinner I walked back past the factory again, but this time followed its walls along to the main street, and there, above the doorway, hung a sign: J Shippam, Potted Meats and Fishpaste. There it stood, this honest, decent factory, in the middle of town, offending nobody, deserted and quiet now, except for the buttery glow from the nightwatchman's window. I fell in love with it at once, and hung around for far too long, in the hope that there would be a night shift; that cheery meat-potters and diligent-fishpasters would troop in, chattering and laughing and occasionally breaking into snatches of ancient pasting songs and traditional potting shanties. Shippam's Potted Meats and Fishpaste had been an icon of my childhood, as potent as Marmite but more special because it would go off once opened, once you had prised open the metal lid with the little plup! of the breaking vacuum, and allowed corrupting reality to invade the fishy purity within. The click of the knife on the inside of the bottle as you scrapped for the last few bits; the pink, fleshy sealing-ring in the lid; the thick, livery, faintly carnal taste of the meat-pastes; the rich oceanic splendour of the sardine-and- tomato, so much better than real sardines and real tomatoes could ever be; the delicate menace of the potted crab: all these were woven into my brain; and to be there, whence they came, standing in the shadow of their very origin, was like making a pilgrimage to some gastronomic shrine.

But it couldn't be true, of course. I didn't believe it for a moment. What had happened was that the Universe had, just for once, bifurcated and left me in the good bit. It has probably closed off again, now; I fear I may be back in the real Universe, where the gentle Englishness of J Shippam has been banished to the outskirts, to some terrible sod-you industrial estate where they speak in American accents of management theory and profit maximisation; and wish, in their heart of hearts, that they were working for McDonalds. I haven't been back. I don't know which is true. But I'm going out now to buy a pot of sardine-and-tomato. It's the least I can do. !

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