The man raised a small, wooden pipe and blew a low note. All the goldfish leaped up, balancing on their tails and turning in lazy circles. The showman raised the pipe aloft, flourished his arms at the crowd, and the fish dropped gratefully back into their water amid roars and cheers.
“Cute,” nodded Emily. “Very cute.”
Rob grinned. “Yeah, I’ve not seen that one before.”
I tried to rearrange my facial expression so I didn’t look like a gawking country bumpkin. I’d never seen any of it before. I’d never seen a lady levitate, or a huge bouquet of flowers disappear into a matchbox, or fish dance on their tails. When Rob had reminded me that the May Day Fair was rolling into their tiny town and insisted that, this time, I came along, I’d expected a few magic tricks and some rickety rides.
I hadn’t expected to be stunned, and bewildered, and dazzled. I hadn’t expected to see things that I couldn’t believe. And all of it appeared to be for real. If the lady levitated on strings, or wires, she’d certainly fooled me— and trust me, I looked for those wires. After the first few surprises, I tried to relax into it and just enjoy the wonder. Of course horses could be trained to do contortions. Naturally a few quid could buy a fizzing cocktail that changed the colour of my hair.
“Not for ever!” Emily laughed at me. “It’ll be back to normal in the morning.”
“Just as well.” I was certain that the bank would not like cobalt blue on one of their fund managers.
I stared at one impossible thing after another. “I’m trying to play it cool, like I’m not bowled over by everything. But you can see straight through me, right?”
“Literally, there’s a stall just over there selling candy floss that makes you transparent.”
“No, of course there isn’t!” Emily laughed at me again.
“To be fair,” added her brother, “there might be. But there never has been before.”
I’d been to the town plenty of times before. Rob and I met at university and visited each other’s homes in the holidays. His sister was only a year younger, and we’d always got on well. They’d often talked about the May Day Fair, and urged me to join them. Despite their glowing recommendations I’d always declined, imagining a pretty small-scale affair. Happy childhood memories made them return again and again, but for me it was too far to travel for an evening watching a few sideshows. But this year, with the bank holiday falling right afterwards, they’d both insisted I make the journey.
And then they towed me from one stall to another until I felt like my head was about to explode.
“We always told you it was full of marvels!” Emily pointed out.
“Yeah, you did. And I never believed you.”
“We could… hey look, it’s the Other Life woman! Let’s go!”
I had no idea what that meant, but I followed Emily towards a small, square tent with a tall roof. A red-headed teenager on the door queried whether we were all together and asked for five pounds from each of us.
A fiver was pretty steep compared to everything else— I’d only paid two-fifty to see a snake that spat fireworks. But given how excited Emily sounded, I figured it had to be worth it.
“Yes, we’ll all come in together,” said Rob. “Do you mind?” he checked with me.
“Err… sure.” What was there to mind?
“Me first!” Emily ran ahead and sat down on a small wooden chair. An elderly lady, her silver hair twisted into an elaborate knot, ushered Rob and I gently to a sagging floral sofa.
“So,” began the lady, her voice dropping almost to a whisper. “Your name is Emily, and you live in Sheffield.”
I looked sideways at Rob, waiting to see if he was going to comment. Emily had never, as far as I knew, lived in Sheffield. Rob wasn’t looking at me, though, he was staring past his sister at a hillside packed with houses. I stared too, seeing the buildings rush towards me until I was standing inside a large kitchen.
“You are mother to three children,” the voice continued, “and wife to Michael Sullivan. You have been married for five years.”
Two blonde children tumbled into the kitchen, pursued by someone who was very definitely Emily. She looked a little older, a little heavier, and was smiling as she scooped up the smaller kid for a cuddle.
“You dropped out of university when you discovered you were pregnant. You and Michael had only been dating three months. Later you both decided the baby had probably been conceived the night you got together at Miranda’s party.”
A thickset man, with a rugby-player’s neck, walked into the kitchen carrying another curly blonde tot. He kissed Emily’s cheek, before they all faded away.
“You missed this life when you declined a last cocktail and walked home to bed.”
The real Emily, our Emily, came back into focus, still sitting on the wooden chair. A smile— a different smile, more wistful— was on her face, but I thought there were tears in her eyes.
She got up and walked slowly over to us but didn’t seem to want to say anything. Rob looked at me, eyebrows raised, then headed over to the chair himself.
The lady put her hand on his shoulder and began again. “So, your name is Robert, and you are wondering how you are going to pay your rent.”
I almost laughed at that; if there was one thing he absolutely didn’t need to worry about, it was where his rent was coming from. But the laugh died as I saw Rob, thin and tired, sitting on a bed in a cramped studio flat.
“People publish your poems, and you command tremendous respect in literary circles. You speak at exclusive events, where hushed audiences hang on your every word. But the money is terrible.”
Rob picked up a small book, in a beautiful grey binding, and turned it over. A Summer’s Life, by Robert Collier.
“Your first collection has just been published. Perhaps it will make your fortune. You have been working towards that book for two and half years.
“You missed this life the day you took the job at the ad agency.”
The bedsit melted away, leaving Rob on the wooden chair, looking a little shell-shocked. He stayed there, his eyes lost in a distance I couldn’t see.
I looked at Emily. “What is this, exactly? A kind of fortune telling? For might-have-been fortunes?” I whispered, trying not to break the silence.
Emily shrugged. “It’s the story of another life. One you didn’t live. One you could have lived, if you’d made a different choice somewhere. A big choice, like turning down a job, or a tiny one like deciding you’d already had one drink too many.”
“And you want to know about these other lives?”
“Of course! Aren’t you curious? About the other versions of you out there? Don’t you want to know if they’re happy? Sad? Regretting their choice?”
I hadn’t ever thought about it. “I guess so.”
Rob moved quietly over to the side of the tent, and I sat down.
As the lady began to speak, I felt a blind, irrational panic well up inside me. What if every other version of me was doing better? What if every choice I’d ever regretted would have made me happier, richer?
Rob and Emily had both seen other selves who were living different, but fulfilling, lives. I feared seeing another, more successful me— but what if I saw myself hopeless, or starving, or in prison?
I wasn’t actually sure I wanted to go through with this.
The scene around me did not shift. The sagging, white wall of the tent remained in place, and I could hear an uncomfortable wheezing as the elderly lady tried to keep her breathing under control. She sounded like she’d been running: gasping, unable to get out the words.
I didn’t want to hear what she had to say.
“Your name is…”
I looked directly towards her, and saw her eyes round with terror, her pupils tiny dots of ink. She staggered away, blurting “I’m sorry.”
“I have no other life for you.”
“What? What do you mean?”
“Ask Raf for your money back. He’ll give you double. I am sorry.” Her hands were gesturing, flapping, almost shoving me towards the door. Confused, I hurried out, not even remembering to ask the teenager for my refund.
Outside, the three of us stared at each other.
Eventually I broke the silence. “Is this some kind of joke?”
“Of course not!”
They both started talking at once, then both stopped.
“I’m sorry,” said Rob. “I don’t know what happened there.”
None of us said anything, but we all started walking away from the May Day Fair, back to Rob’s family home.
Although I’d been on the point of pushing the old woman aside, leaving, telling her that I didn’t want to hear about another me, I now couldn’t stop wondering. What might I have seen? Perhaps a self where I went to a different university and didn’t meet Rob, or the self who asked Emily out that summer I was twenty. Or the self that decided it was too far to travel up to the Fair.
Would any of those decisions have made a difference? How many other lives did a person have?
We sat round the table in Rob’s mum’s kitchen, drinking tea and whisky. But the conversation was awkward, and no one mentioned what had happened. Pretty soon we all headed off to bed.
I lay awake for a long time, wondering if the other selves that Rob and Emily had seen were pretty fantasies, or real people living their own lives. Perhaps mother-of-three Emily went home to the May Day Fair and saw instead a ferociously-driven, eager veterinary science student living in a tiny flat with nothing but textbooks to keep her company in the evenings. Perhaps mother-of-three Emily never existed.
I slept badly. I woke often, and eventually in the early hours I got up, got dressed, and let myself out of the house.
I walked back towards the common and found people already stirring. Tents were being struck, wagons packed, and horses harnessed. There were motor vehicles too, of course, but many of these people still travelled with horse-drawn caravans.
I headed straight towards the spot I thought the Other Life tent had been, although it was gone. I looked around, trying to get my bearings among the half-dismantled sideshows.
Someone walked past me, furled in an ancient brown dressing gown and hurrying along head-down. A long, silver plait hung over one shoulder, and I realised that yes, surely, this was the woman.
She didn’t turn around.
I ran after her, tapping her on the shoulder. “Excuse me!”
She stopped, but still didn’t look at me. “You.”
“Yes, me. Why wouldn’t you show me another life?”
Her shoulders sagged. “I’m sorry, I couldn’t.”
“I try to show people a positive life, something they will enjoy. I don’t show your friend Rob the life where he dies of hepatitis, I don’t show his sister the life where the man walks out on her and the baby. I couldn’t see something I thought you would enjoy.”
“My other lives were all unhappy?”
She looked at me, staring directly into my eyes in a way that scared me. “In every other life I could see you were already dead.”
She turned away and was already a few paces back towards her caravan before I found a response.
“Dead? All of them? Why? How often does this happen? What does it mean?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know.” She was still walking, hurrying, trying to leave me behind.
“Does it mean I will die soon? Will I…?”
“I don’t know! Perhaps you are strong and bold and determined. Perhaps you are doomed. I don’t know!” Her voice shook, and her already-pale face looked waxy in the morning sunlight. She stormed away and I let her go, watching her silver hair swing down her back.