Benny the idiot really wasn’t an idiot, but nobody knew his real name. His sweatshirt had a picture of Jack Benny, so the name stuck in my head.
‘You look lost,’ Quinn said to him, the first time he wandered into her cafe. ‘Can I help you?’
‘All the houses look the same here, but different,’ he’d said. ‘Why am I in a place that’s like a bad copy of home from long ago?’
Quinn couldn’t think of anything useful to say, so she said nothing.
‘Sorry, you must think I’m an idiot’, said Benny He shrugged and ordered a pot of tea with a hand and cheese toastie. After that, he’d show up two or three times a week, one of the semi-regulars.
Mostly, Benny kept to himself. It wasn’t until I arrived at the cafe on a busy day that I found myself sitting opposite him at a small table. There was nowhere else left to sit, and I hate coffee to go. Those fifteen minutes sitting down are precious to me, a rare time to gather thoughts.
Benny smiled when I asked if I could sit in the seat next to him, then nodded his assent. He shut the notebook he was doodling in as I sat down, resting his hands on top of it, fingers intertwined.
‘Why do people ask that?’ he said. ‘Do they think I own an empty chair?’
‘I think politeness,’ I said. ‘Maybe they think you’re holding the chair for someone.’
‘I never am,’ he said. ‘This isn’t where I’m from. I don’t know anyone.’
‘Ray Harper,’ I said, extending my hand. ‘Now you know me.’
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I know. You’re the writer?’
‘I’m a reporter. Nothing as literary as a writer. I tell people’s stories.’
‘I can tell you a story, if you pay for lunch. Want to hear a new story?’
‘It’s been almost three months now. A group of us went on a road trip together, a bicycle trip on one of the first good weekends of the Summer. The first thing I can remember is needing to go back because I’d forgotten something, but I can’t remember what it was. That morning we’d cycled together from Shanglin to Inishfall, and whatever it was, it was important enough that I needed to go back for it. So I told the gang to hang on, enjoy themselves around Inishfall for a few hours, and I’d catch up to them in the evening. That was three weeks ago.
‘So I cycled back, and everything went as it usually does. I enjoyed the ride, it was a fine day, the sun was shining and the sky was blue, far better than it had any right to be at the end of September. I switched off, went to autopilot.
‘Except when I got to the top of the hill and crested it, everything was different. I mean, it looked like Shanglin, everything was more or less in the right place, but it was all just a little bit off. Think of a landscape you know like the back of your hand, so much that you can close your eyes and imagine walking around it. An old neighbourhood where you grew up, somewhere you lived so long you know every twist in the road. Then imagine you see an old photograph of it before all the buildings there now were built. Or you see a painting of somewhere else, that looks almost like it. A church tower in exactly the right place, or a shadow of a hill behind the town. But somehow, it’s off. The chock tower is a little too tall. The mountain is too close. The buildings are a little too squat, or too clean, or the paint is too faded.
‘I couldn’t quite place what felt wrong at first. Like I said, it was a glorious day, and I’d been cycling on automatic, letting my thoughts drift. I was halfway down the Castle hill before I really noticed there was something strange happening. Half the houses were gone. All of the older buildings were still there, but the newer extensions, the developments pushing the boundaries out towards the Drum and the Fork were gone. And what was still there wasn’t quite right.
‘I cycled around Shanglin in a strange daze, becoming ever more certain I was in the wrong place. Somehow I’d taken a wrong turn and ended up somewhere I’d never been before, a doppleganger town. When I went to the place I knew best of all, my own home, it was unnerving. Murphy’s was still there at the river turn, but all around it were green fields. And when I turned the final bend, the old town-house was still where it always was, but the landscape around it had changed. The tops of the trees behind it no longer visible over the rooftop. Where there had been a flat patch of green and a road sign, there was a carved boulder, some sort of street artwork. Behind that, where my own home should have been, there was a house I’d never seen before. Beyond that, what should have been a plain two-story block of flats had been redesigned into a strange multi-level series of building blocks, like someone build a staircase out of room-sized cubes. I’d been cycling around for over an hour by then, but it wasn’t until that moment I noticed how quiet it was. I hadn’t seen a single person since I’d arrived.
‘I was lost in a world that felt like an echo, that’s the only way I can describe it. If I had taken a wrong turn, I could understand how I might have gone down a road I’d never been on before, arrived at the wrong place. The physical geography of two places could be similar, I guess, so that everything looks vaguely familiar. But the buildings? The roads? Bridges? How could that happen? How could two valleys have almost identical patterns?
‘Finally, I turned back, went to catch up with the gang in Inishfall. But when I got back here, there was no sign of the gang any more. I decided to stay here, it’s as good a place as any. So here I am. This isn’t my world, but it’s the world I’ve been given. I don’t know how I got here. And I don’t know how to get back.’
He paused for a moment as Quinn arrived with a fresh pot of tea, and finished off the last of the cheese toastie in a couple of bites as she poured a fresh cup.
‘There’s a theory that every time there’s a choice, the world divides in two. Tea or coffee, heads or tails, left or right? In one universe, you order tea, in the other, coffee. I think I fell through a crack in the world somewhere. Travelling down the road I switched off my brain and stopped making all those small decisions you don’t even think about. And when I stopped thinking, and I started slipping between all the worlds created by different decisions, and I ended up here. Almost the same as where I came from, just a few different coin tosses from home.
‘So what do you think. Was the story worth the price of admission?’
‘Is it true?’
‘Doesn’t matter, does it. All that matters is whether you think it was worth the price of admission.’
I paid for his lunch.