It was almost a cliché with the amount of times it was mentioned to me, whether it be from family, friends, or the droves of social media acquaintances I was in observance of. The saying was as follows, give or take the zest each person wanted to give to it: To truly realise who you are, you must explore the world outside of your comfort zone.
Many people did this by getting out of their time zone, so after working away and saving as best I could, I bought a ticket to the other side of the planet. I had escaped the confinement of my continent, as well as the confinement of all the relationships around me, both beneficial and problematic.
At the start of my trip, I started to understand a small bit of what people meant with their clichés that I so readily rolled my eyes at, and I was eager to continue that exploration. With each new city I found new food, new culture, new customs and new experience, and this experience was felt by myself alone in a subjective solitude nobody else was wary to. I truly started to feel clarity in my once cluttered mind.
I was by myself, hopping from country to country, expressing myself as freely as I could, free of expectation, free of pressures from the known people around me, free! I was in the unknown and diving further in every day.
Travelling the world, I found myself.
I awoke early, donning a light jacket and cap in anticipation of a morning chill that would soon give way to the early spring sun.
Leaving the modest apartment I would be saying goodbye to in a few nights, I sprung over the puddles that had formed throughout the night, and towards a row of cafes I’d frequented before, away from the bustling Parisian streets.
Whistling lightly, I could not help but think of how carefree I had been in my journeys, and how much more excitement was to come. Almost absent of thought is when I saw him, stopping me in my tracks on the damp sidewalk.
The man was sitting outside the café, the same café I was to request my morning coffee, sipping from his mug and reading what looked like the day’s paper. His face was slightly covered by round-framed spectacles but I could not help be overwhelmed by the sense of familiarity I had for him.
I once again began my steps, though now my legs seemed slow and measured, shuffling softly towards this mirror of a man in front of me.
His clothes seemed cleaner than my traveller’s garb, his beard much more finely trimmed than my own, but I could not help but be struck by the awe of what I was seeing in this man.
My eyes were deceiving me, my mind playing a foul trick on its tired morning self. What was projecting in front of me was a carbon copy of myself, languidly finishing his coffee without the faintest of bother on his face.
His spectacled eyes met mine, though he did not betray the slightest emotion in regarding my admittedly shocked face.
“Excuse me, sir” I managed to scrape out, though my lips seemed to be parched of words.
French, of course. He was French! I was going positively insane, thinking up grand ideas of seeing my own self staring back at me on a random street, when all along it was merely a French man with nothing more than a likeness to me. I must have been much too tired, this man looked similar, sure, but was he the man I peer at when I brush my teeth? Of course not. He was a French man, I spoke no French, this was not the bizarre scenario my brain had conjured up absent from reality
The man had kept his gaze affixed to mine, anticipating a follow-up question to my interference of his breakfast.
“I’m sorry, I thought I knew you” I managed to say, turning my body away and slowly beginning to regain my senses. I had gone red of face in my embarrassment, and wanted to walk through the cool air to refresh myself.
“Oh, you most certainly do not know me, though I say you’re starting to.”
I felt the colour drain from my face.
That was my voice.
I stood paralysed in confusion, or fear, or curiosity. My mind was not making sense of anything, and I slowly turned back around to face whatever trick was waiting for me.
Instead I saw the man casually get up, place some coins on the table and start to take his leave. My mind was racing, conjuring more questions than answers, which he must have sensed, for he looked back, waved me to follow, and continued to walk.
Though he did not move at a brisk pace, the man walked into alleys unknown to me, and took me through archways hidden and perplexing. We reached a heavyset door, obviously locked, and with but a movement of his hands, it had opened to reveal a deep staircase, straight down.
Had I lost my mind? Following whoever or whatever this man was through parts of a city I barely knew?
Before I had a moment to even ponder these thoughts, I viewed my legs moving, and I walked down and down and down, the light becoming ever more absent as the air around us became thick and cool, smothering me from all around.
Soon there was just blackness, but the man in front of me removed a lighter from his pocket and lit the way forwards. I could hardly make out the walls, let alone see what I was stepping on, but the ground was now level and steady, and I felt like we’d walked deep into the heart of the underground.
Soft rumbling came from what I assumed were trains, but even these soft vibrations were muffled to the point of being near inaudible.
I finally gathered my courage enough to speak, but before I could, the man in front of me flicked a switch which brought a blinding light forth. With my hands covering the glare, I slowly started to make sense of where I was.
What looked like a theatre was set up towards a back wall, with rows upon rows of seating facing the empty stage. The man I had followed in here had disappeared, but as the lights dimmed, a spotlight was shone upon the stage.
“Where are we?” I bellowed, hoping the man could hear me from wherever he was hiding.
“We are exactly where we are meant to be, on the edge of the unknown. Take a seat and judge what is performed in front of you” Was the answer that came forth, or was that myself answering my query? All I could hear was my voice, my heartbeat, my fear. Yet I thought nothing, and began moving towards the front row of seats, as if on a cloud.
I took a seat front and centre, with every other seat vacant and useless. The performance was about to begin, the man had started to move towards centre stage.
As he stepped out of the dimly lit sides and into the light, I saw he was dressed as a jester, bells ringing from a colourful patchwork hat, shoes curling upwards to the unseen ceiling.
The man was unrecognisable, that was not me, I must be hallucinating, or worse, I was under some sort of drug induced psychosis.
A slow tune began on a piano in the wings, and the jester started to dance. The tempo was slow, but the keys began to be played faster and faster, and the jester moved in time. Rolling and somersaulting he flew from side to side, making dramatic and exaggerated noises, landing hard on his back after a cartwheel. He lay there motionless, but within a second, his head turned towards mine and winked.
Applause rung from behind me and almost stopped my heart, as I jumped from my seat at the presence of what I came to see was a full crowd. My mother was there, and my father, friends and acquaintances, faces that seemed recognisable but couldn’t be placed and total strangers holding up their phones and recording the jester on stage in his agony.
I could hear nothing but the laughter of these familiar faces, and as I looked upon the stage, the jester had resumed his performance, juggling and prancing, but the tears rolled from his eyes, unseen, or perhaps, uncared for by the audience. He kept jumping and jumping, in more pain with every leap, and the crowd heckled and bellowed for more, red in the face, at the comedy in front of them.
“Stop this, stop this all! I don’t want to watch anymore!”
And suddenly I was on stage, and I looked down at the frills from my wrists, and the bells upon my head, and I wept. And I danced.
No, this was not me. This was another trick of the senses, of the mind! I was going insane and I could not tell what was real anymore.
The beads of sweat rolled from my face as the crowd grew louder and louder. The piano was nearly drowned out, but the tempo raised and raised, my jumping and dancing not a part of myself any more.
“One of a kind!”
“An amazing performance”
“You truly are the most genuine performer!”
I could not bear it any longer.
“This is not me” I exclaimed, arms flailing towards the ceiling with dramatic effect.
The laughter had stopped, the piano was silent, and in the front row I saw… me.
I sat in the front row, and I looked at the faces around me. Disappointment and disgust upon them all, malice in the eyes of those I thought familiar.
I turned back to the stage and started to clap.
“A great jest” I said softly, as a slow clap originated somewhere in the sea of people and began to take power as it went. The crowd turned uproarious, cries for encores were chanted as a small door opened to the side of the theatre.
The jester on stage was smiling now, as if each part of the performance was exactly how it was meant to be.
I turned to the door, having to make my way through the men and women, children and elderly, all continuing their vociferous support for the jester on stage. As I got to the door, I turned back to view upon the crowd one last time, but I was met merely with silence. The theatre was empty.
The jester remained on stage, wiping make-up from his face and removing his belled hat. He turned and faced me, eyes full of sorrow and understanding. It was my face, my reflection.
His voice was soft, yet it felt as though it was as close as a whisper in my ear.
“They are expecting another performance next time, even greater than this one. You would not want to turn your back on them, would you?”
I closed the door.