Adrian Slatcher writes poetry, fiction and criticism, and lives in Manchester.
Many years ago I wrote an ongoing serial about Retcher & Doppelganger, two itinerant fools, a la Vladimir and Estragon or Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Gildenstern. Their “episodes”, comic and surreal, would appear alongside other stories in Frisky, the photocopied zine of my stories I used to hand out to friends from 1996 onwards. It seems that Retcher and Doppelganger would cope with lockdown and social distancing better than most – so I’ve resurrected them.
A casual observer, if such a person still exists, would have perhaps noticed the two men, sat several feet apart, and have thought nothing of it. Closer inspection and they would perhaps have been intrigued how one had a piece of chalk in his hand, this was the one sat on an uncomfortable low wooden fence, whilst the other, who was sat on the pavement, had what looked like a washing line prop in his hand, which he was slowly moving in the direction of his friend.
“It’s a challenge, of that I am certain,” said the first man.
“I still don’t think we should,” said the second.
“And yet you keep pointing that thing at me,” replied the first.
Doppelganger, who was sat down on the uncomfortable fence reached down and drew a short chalk line in front of where his feet dangled. He stood up, suddenly enough to scare the other man, who was still sat cross-legged on the floor, and unable to jump up quite so suddenly. Instead Retcher waved the clothes prop wildly at the other man as he advanced.
“Keep back,” he said.
“That is so impractical,” said Doppelganger, dextrously lifting one leg over the proffered prop and careful to then do the same with the other one before he became dangerously entangled.
“Are you even sure that is two metres long?”
“I seem to recall the packaging said it was six foot something,” said Retcher, now just about on his feet.
“That’s the problem we always have,” said Doppelganger, shaking his head, “a world of imprecision. Someone says metres, and someone else says feet, and the person who knows both feet and metres is yet to make themselves known. I blame the education system, after all, there can’t be anyone else to blame.”
Retcher still held the prop in front of him and Doppelganger still walked around it, or rather he made a couple of large strides, and at that point, bent down and drew a second line with his chalk.
“See, that’s about it, or at least as near as.”
“As near as? As near as? We won’t get very far with as near as.”
“And how far are we going to get with that –“ said Doppelganger, twisting his hand round the end of the prop.
“Hey, stop that!”
Retcher moved sideways, still holding the prop at full length, but Doppelganger had the measure of him, and had swung round, and pushed his end of the prop upright, as if it was indeed ready for the task which it had been designed, namely to hold a washing line taut.
Retcher was torn between holding his end, which now was a good foot above his head, and keeping the requisite distance from Doppelganger.
“You see, the two metres only works if the prop is held out straight like this,” and with that Doppelganger brought his end down to level with his chest, and being too slow to anticipate the move, Retcher found the other end of the prop pushing into his chest and given that he had been less than six foot (or two metres, depending on your sense of what was going on here), from Doppelganger’s end, was poleaxed to the floor, all the breath out of him. His point proven, Doppelganger dropped his end of the pole and walked onwards, every couple of strides drawing another chalk line.
“Come on, it will be dark soon.”
Defeated somewhat, Retcher followed, and he had to admit – though he would be loathe to do so – that Doppelganger’s distance method was an effective one. Every time he tried to catch up with his friend there was another chalk mark in front of him and he had to wait until there was sufficient distance between them in order that he might carry on.
The two men walked in silence for a bit with different things worrying them. For Doppelganger, having proven, once again, that he was best equipped to lead their small gang, was worried that this piece of chalk was getting smaller and smaller with each line he drew. He tried speeding up and making less prominent marks, but given that they still needed to be the requisite distance, it just meant the chalk became smaller even quicker. As for Retcher, though defeated, once again, past experience had shown that something would possibly occur that would turn the tables, for which his own more agile approach to things would come into its own. However, his main concern was what he should do with the clothes prop.
“Where do you think we should stay?” asked Retcher.
Doppelganger paused. It was a good question, which as their leader he should have the answer but hadn’t yet got one.
“This situation is a new and somewhat difficult one for those of us who travel, don’t you think?”
“Do we even constitute a single household given that we don’t have a house to go to?”
Retcher nodded again.
“Where did we stay last night, that might be a starting point,” said Retcher.
It was hard to tell, even harder to remember, after all each night was very like the next or the last, except when it was different, and that was surely the exception that proved the rule.
“But we are together,” said Retcher, “that much is true, isn’t it?”
“For now,” sighed Doppelganger, for although there had been times when both of them had gone their own ways, it seemed that the two of them were never quite so much themselves, as when they were with the other.
“In that case,” said Retcher, speeding up to stand alongside his friend, “we don’t need to stay six feet apart.”
“Two metres,” corrected Doppelganger. He looked at the piece of chalk in his hand, one more line and there’d be no more.
“Well, that’s good then,” he said, to Retcher’s obvious relief, “because I’ve run out of chalk.” The last fragment dissolved into dust between his fingers.
“I’ve still this,” said Retcher, and he dragged the clothes prop ahead of him, using it almost as a divining stick this time, as they no longer needed it to separate them. Whether it really had such power, they looked over to where it pointed. A large tarpaulin was flapping in the light breeze at the back of an abandoned good yard.
They didn’t need to discuss it.
They quickly wandered over to it, and hid themselves under it. The only discomfort was the flapping in the breeze, and that was soon rectified. The clothes prop was exactly the right length to wrap around the edge of the tarpaulin and secure it in place, providing them with a lodging for the evening.