Dostoevsky’s The Double (1846) explores the gulf that can exist between how a person sees themselves and how others see them – between self-perception and reality – and how exhausting it can be maintaining an image for society. In these respects, it foreshadows the experiential anxieties associated with social media today. This piece reimagines The Double in the age of social media.
It was just after eleven when Rashid woke up, opened his eyes, let go of his cuddly polar bear toy and looked around him. For a few seconds he was unsure where he was. Was he … Then his senses began to take in his surroundings more clearly. The dirty plates. The empty Pot Noodle containers. The Walkers multipacks. The glasses, stacked up like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The jumpers and jogging bottoms. The empty bottles everywhere. And finally that dreary winter’s day, shouldering its way through the dark curtains. No, Rashid was not in his childhood home in Karachi. He was in his one-bedroom flat in Newbury Park. He shut his eyes and tried to summon back his dream, in which he had been in his childhood home in Karachi. But it was no good. The dream was gone.
He lay motionless and miserable for a minute, before suddenly remembering his plan for the day. His eyes widened. He checked the time. ‘Good God!’ he muttered. ‘It’s eleven ten!’ He scrambled out of bed and into the bathroom. In a frenzy, he brushed his teeth, shaved, showered.
Eating some toast, he checked the route online. It would take fifty minutes: the Central Line from Newbury Park to Tottenham Court Road, then the 38, 55 or 19 bus to Museum Street.
So … He could plausibly have the post up by one thirty: five thirty Karachi time.
‘Yes!’ he thought. ‘The perfect time! Bilal will see it on his way home from work and what a shock it will be to him, oh, what a shock it will be to him, him and my other thirteen Facebook friends – friends? Ha! fiends, fiends, the lot of them! Never friends – fiends! Anyway, Bilal will see it on his way home and then round the dinner table he will say, “Rashid went to the British Museum today” and his daughter will say, “Really? The British Museum? That’s amazing” and his wife will say, “I didn’t know Rashid was into culture?” and Bilal will say, “No … The last photo he posted was of him outside Wembley Stadium, kissing an England football shirt” and everyone will burst out laughing. “That was so stupid!” his wife will say. And everyone will continue laughing. Oh, how could that Wembley post only have received three Likes? I bought the shirt for it! Okay, the shirt was reduced, but still … I would have bought it even if it were full price, even if it were fifty pounds! I will never understand how that post received only three Likes: never, never, never. In England, football is culture. Bilal’s uncultured! He’s the uncultured sibling! He is! Him! But this British Museum post. This will show everyone! They want culture? I’ll give them culture! Fourteen Likes, I predict. Fourteen! The clean sweep! It’s coming. It’s coming! The British Museum is coming home!’ A twinkle in his eyes, Rashid gave a strange wink – to no one but the room.
Rashid had been unhealthily obsessed with Facebook since the summer. It was actually Bilal who had urged him to sign up. Bilal had said that everyone used Facebook nowadays, that Rashid not using it was suspicious. Rashid had heard bad things about Facebook on the news, but he couldn’t stand for his conduct being labelled suspicious, no, that was something he simply could not stand for, especially not from his condescending brother. So Rashid had hesitantly, but necessarily signed up. And from the moment he had signed up, everything had changed. He still couldn’t believe how amazing Facebook was, how easily and effectively it enabled him to rewrite the narrative of his life, to show his relatives in Karachi that he hadn’t failed, no, he hadn’t failed, he had succeeded. Bilal had been wrong to be worried about him, and everyone else too: wrong, wrong, wrong! Sure. Sometimes his posts misfired – like the Wembley one! – but that was to be expected. He was being creative, taking risks, pushing boundaries. Not every one of The Beatles songs was totally successful either. But who would say a negative thing about The Beatles now? No one, that was who. No one! The Beatles were remembered for their highs, not their lows. And the same would be true for Rashid. The British Museum! That would be one of his highs.
Rashid walked towards the British Museum. There were a lot of tourists with oversize animal-shaped iPhone cases, a lot of families with small children, and a lot of Prets.
‘Bloody hell,’ Rashid said, seeing the British Museum. The stone pillars. The carvings. The courtyard. ‘Bloody hell.’ There was a queue just to get into the courtyard. He joined it.
Finally in, he looked for a good place to take his photo. He wanted to capture the building properly, so he couldn’t get too close. He took a few paces, and then turned around and opened the camera app on his phone. Yes. This was a good position. Once a couple with big, bulky bags had finally edged out of the frame, he straightened his back, smiled and took a burst.
‘Yes,’ he said, looking through the photos. ‘These look …’ He squinted and pinched the screen, inspecting one more closely. ‘No! I look fat, too fat!’
He sucked his stomach in. He smiled and took another burst.
The third photo in this burst. That was the best, by far. ‘I look thin on that one,’ he thought. ‘Bilal will see it and start worrying about me. Yes! He’ll worry I’m starving. Since Rashid moved to London, he’s had too much culture, and not enough food! Oh, Rashid. Just culture and bones!’
Giddily, Rashid opened Facebook, uploaded the photo and came up with a caption. ‘Nice walk on Museum Street. Now visiting the British museum for the Sunken Cities exhibition!’
Done. Five twenty Karachi time.
‘Oh, to be a fly on the wall in Bilal’s house tonight!’ Rashid thought.
What now? He had read that the British Museum was open until five thirty, and free. Well, the Sunken Cities exhibition was fifteen pounds, but everything else was free, everything else! Since he was here and had nothing else to do, maybe he should have a poke around? See some statues, some spears, some coins, some whatever else was in there. Why not? Why the hell not! He started walking towards the entrance, then suddenly froze. Did he really want to see statues? There was soup at home. He turned round and made his way back to the bus stop. The soup would be nice.
He had presumed that he would become interested in lots of things, once he had sold the shop and settled into his retirement, that it would come naturally, that it would be hard packing everything in. But somehow that hadn’t happened …
Four Likes. Nothing from Bilal.
Drunkenly, Rashid shouldered his way through the thick, buttery light in his flat to his purring fridge. Only three Carlsbergs left. ‘Please God let that be enough to put me to sleep,’ he thought. He had never wanted to sleep so badly. Oh, the shame! ‘Four Likes! And none of them even hearts!’ They thought he was gloating at how much culture there was in London. That was it. They thought he was gloating. ‘Look at the culture I have in London! Just compare that to what you have in Karachi!’ That’s what they thought he was saying with the post. They thought he was gloating and were making him pay for it. And, by God, he was paying for it. Four Likes! What a failure!’ He couldn’t bear to think about it for another second, not another second, not one!
What was there to watch on iPlayer? He opened his eight-year old laptop and waited a few minutes for it to turn on, then scrolled through the options. Dramas. Documentaries. Newsnight. Brighton Rock. Hmm. Brighton Rock sounded familiar. Why not try it? He impetuously pressed play, sunk some beer. ‘Okay, Rashid, concentrate,’ he muttered. He watched strenuously for a few minutes, then pressed pause. ‘No! This is boring!’
He closed iPlayer. He couldn’t watch something, not tonight. He opened Facebook. The post still only had four Likes. ‘Oh God, not even one more,’ he thought. ‘Not even one more!’
He went onto Bilal’s profile.
‘Unbelievable!’ he shouted, nearly letting his laptop fall to the floor.
Bilal had posted a photo of him hiking this morning. Seventeen Likes!
‘Justice!’ he shouted, thumping his thigh with his fist. ‘Where are you?’
Rashid was in the Stratford Westfield. He now knew the real reason why so few of his fiends had Liked his British Museum post. It was nothing to do with gloating. It was because he had looked so fat on the photo. Oh, to think he had thought he looked thin on the photo! ‘The conversation Bilal and his family must have had round the dinner table!’ he said. ‘I can hear Bilal now! “I love this meal, wife. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.” “Thanks, Bilal! But you don’t want to have too much or you’ll end up looking like Rashid.” And they would have burst out laughing. “Hang on, I’ll find the picture again,” Bilal would have said. “I can’t bear to see it again!” his wife would have replied. “It would permanently blind me.” Well, Rashid would set things right today. He would show them. ‘Oh, forgive me for offending your wife’s senses, Bilal, for scarring her eyes with my rolls of fat, my endless rolls of fat!’ Rashid said sarcastically, clenching his fist.
He passed DKNY and Urban Outfitters and Superdry and G Star. ‘What’s to choose between clothing shops like this?’ he wondered. In the middle of the shopping centre, some masseuses with blonde highlights were offering thirty-minute sessions for twenty-five pounds. He shook his head in amusement at the thought of it. Rashid having a massage. Then he paused. ‘Maybe that would actually make a good post? It would show everyone the sort of man I am, the sort of wealth I have! I could take the photo a few metres away, just with the sign in the background, pre-massage, so I don’t have to actually pay the money … No! I can’t have a massage. That is the sort of thing I would have if I were fat. Lying back. Lazy. Letting someone else … No!’
Rashid walked on. A group of kids were fooling around by the benches: two boys with flashy haircuts were chipping a bright orange football to each other over two girls; friends were egging the two boys on, sucking up milkshakes and filming on their phones.
Rashid was struck by a sudden thought: ‘Has anyone ever noticed that I’m alone on all my photos?’ He paused for a second, in cold fright, then waved the thought away. ‘No! They’re far too stupid to notice something like that! Imagine them noticing something like that. The fiends!’
Finally he saw it: the Nike store. He went inside.
It took him a few minutes, but he found them: the Nike Vaporfly 4% Flynit running shoes. He had read online that they were ‘built to meet the exacting needs of world-class marathoners’ and it looked like they really were. Lightweight. Colourful too. Orange. Orange screamed world class.
‘Could I try these on in size eleven?’ he asked one of the sales assistants.
‘Yeah, mate, no worries.’
As the sales assistant walked off to get them, Rashid said: ‘I saw that look of surprise in his eyes. He thinks I’m too fat to run or maybe that I’m buying them for a friend. Well, the jokes on him. I’m not buying them at all. I’m not buying them at all. The fool!’
‘Here,’ the sales assistant said, returning with them, a few minutes later.
‘Thank you,’ Rashid said, taking the box. He sat on a black fabric stool, slowly unlaced his big, bumpy leather shoes and put them on. Then he turned to the sales assistant, who was looking at him vaguely. Rashid pursed his lips and glared up at him, suddenly consumed by irrational rage. ‘What are you looking at? Have you never seen a man put on a pair of shoes before, because let me tell you, sir, it happens every day! I would have thought that you, working in an establishment that sells shoes, would know that. It’s really very well known. I have known it my whole life!’
‘What?’ the sales assistant said, stepping back worriedly.
‘You heard me!’ Rashid said.
The sales assistant made a pffff sound and then turned his attention to another customer. Rashid stood up, and moved towards the floor mirror. Then he angled his phone and took a photo of his calves and the Nikes. ‘I should probably have worn some different trousers,’ he thought. ‘These trainers would look better with jogging bottoms. But I was so used to wearing these suit trousers out for the photos. I was so used to it! I can’t be blamed for a mistake like that! And what does it matter anyway? The message of this post is more important than the visuals!’
He checked the photo to make sure it looked okay.
Yes. The caption would be: ‘Starting my training for the London Marathon!’
‘Now let Bilal say I’m fat!’ Rashid thought. ‘How many marathons has he run? Zero!’
He kicked off the trainers triumphantly, put his shoes back on, and left the stupid store.
Rashid spooned up some potato salad and sipped some Carlsberg. He couldn’t let this continue, this insolence! How could he live in a world in which Bilal could get seventeen Likes – eight of them hearts! – for a hiking photo and Rashid could get only five Likes – none of them hearts! – for a London marathon photo. He couldn’t let this continue. But he would have to change tack …
His fiends were clearly too self-absorbed to Like anything that didn’t directly appeal to their interests. ‘Well, fine!’ he thought. ‘I’ll appeal to their interests. I’ll appeal to their interests in a way they wouldn’t believe!’ He moved from profile to profile. ‘Be smart, Rashid,’ he thought. ‘Be smart. You can see the Pages these fiends Like. You can see everything they’ve posted. They are, really, open books for you to study, open books. Okay. Let’s take a look. Let’s take a look. Bilal. My flesh and blood! Oh, Bilal, you forget the way we used to play together, you show your loving brother no mercy! But that’s okay. Because I’m okay, I’m okay … Bilal Likes the Pakistan Cricket Team and ICC Cricket World Cup and Bohemian Rhapsody pages and, well, many others.’ Rashid spooned up some more potato salad, this time swamping his mouth with mayonnaise. He simply had to find one interest his fourteen friends shared. Once had had found that interest, he could come up with a plan, a brilliant plan …
It was three in the morning. Bleary-eyed, Rashid stared at his scribbles.
For six hours straight, he had been scrutinising the fourteen profiles and scribbling, but he reckoned he had it now. Bilal, Abir, Faiza, Rameen and Laila Liked Dreamworld Water Park. Massoud, Nasreen and Babar had been to Biryani of the Seas together last week. Bilal, Hussein, Ibrahim and Imran Liked Jaws. Fahad Liked Rollercoaster Tycoon. Zenab and Laila Liked Water Aid. And Zenab’s sister-in-law? She Liked very little. But she had Liked three photos: two featuring friends on beaches in Southeast Asia (and one a handsome man singing).
What was the connection? How could he play to it?
It was obvious really.
He slapped his thighs and swung his head back laughing at how obvious.
A clean sweep of Likes was coming Rashid’s way!
He finally went to bed at four thirty. God, his mattress. Golf courses had fewer bumps. He elbowed the impossibly hard foam a few times, then, resigned to its uncomfortableness, lit a roll-up. It wasn’t one of his better ones. The lighter’s slurping flame blackened a third of the paper instantly. He should have put more tobacco. But it was better than nothing. He exhaled some smoke, hazing the room up, and embarked on an inner monologue: ‘Bilal, Abir, Faiza, Rameen and Laila Like Dreamworld Water Park. Massoud, Nasreen and Babar went to Biryani of the Seas …’
Rashid had never been to a British seaside town before. He had never even thought about going to one before. ‘Maybe I should have been more curious?’ he thought. ‘No! That would have been meant being someone else. I am who I am. And what’s wrong with that? What I am is a human. I’m not a spider!’ There was a family sitting opposite him on the train, with a boy of five or so. He was waving a dinosaur toy and making swooshing sounds. ‘Yet am I a human? I’ve moved halfway round the world but there are still so few human experiences I’ve had. What’s it like to have a child? What’s it like to … No! I’m Rashid and Rashid is Rashid is Rashid is Rashid!’
The next stop was Southend Victoria. He was nearly there.
It was windy. But the sky was blue, the sun was shining.
He strolled towards the beach, past empty ‘waterfront’ cafes, pawn shops and majestic hotels.
It was nice here.
Rashid stood on the viewing platform, looking out onto the pier, which the Internet had told him was the longest pleasure pier in the world; onto Adventure Island, with its many multicolour steel loops, its ferris wheel, its big choo-choo train, its bumper-car track; and onto the sparkling sand. There should be a lot of people here. Why was Westfield more crowded?
‘One of the sharks please,’ Rashid said.
‘Afraid I’m out of sharks, mate,’ the shopkeeper said.
‘But there’s one there.’ Rashid pointed towards the inflatable shark outside the shop.
‘Display, that one.’
‘What? What do you mean, sir? I think you misunderstand me. I need that shark!’
‘Dolphin? But Ibrahim and Imran Like Jaws and Jaws has a shark!’
‘What?’ the shopkeeper said, starting to look a little scared.
‘Sir, I need the shark. I need that shark! I would kill many a man for that shark!’
‘Fine. For you. But it’ll be seven fifty. Because—’
‘What? For an inflatable shark? Never! Never will you see Rashid pay seven fifty for an inflatable shark. It says the inflatables are five pounds each, and even that, sir, even that is extortionate. But I will pay it today, and only today. But seven fifty? No! Never!’
‘Jesus. Fine, mate. Take it for a bloody fiver.’
‘Oh. Thank you! I won’t forget your kindness. I won’t forget it!’
Rashid tossed the panic-stricken shopkeeper a five pound note, took his inflatable shark and then headed over to the beach with the shark squeezed to his side under his elbow. The water was moving calmly, with white-silver sprinkles. On the sand, he tented a hand over his eyes. ‘Is that France over there? That’s somewhere else I never thought to visit. Why?’ He shrugged. ‘I’m Rashid and Rashid is Rashid is Rashid is Rashid!’ The sea breeze was bracing. It really was a lovely morning. He turned round slowly to get his photo, the photo, the ‘Hey Jude’ of photos.
He would upload the photo and then that would be it. He would have his clean sweep of Likes. There was no doubt, absolutely no doubt about it. No one would dare to deny him a Like for this. No one! Not Bilal. Not Nasreen. Not Laila. Not Rameen. Not Massoud. No one!
He wouldn’t even include a caption. There was no need for a caption.
The photo was perfection. He tapped out the ‘Hey Jude’ melody on his thighs.
He lingered over the Post button. But he couldn’t bring himself to press it. Once he had pressed it, everything would be over, complete. He would have his clean sweep. And then what?
He would have won. Game over.
‘Oh, Rashid,’ he muttered hysterically. ‘You will have won. You will have won! They said you should stay in Karachi, that you would never amount to anything in London, that you would regret moving to London. How wrong they were! You will have won! You will have won!’
He finally hammered the Post button and then mashed the keyboard with his thumb. The status update box filled with random letters: VGHGBJHYUFVUYBFIUEBFWOYHOIFFIHUGF.
He closed Facebook and then maniacally threw his phone into the sea.
He laughed as he heard the splash it made and then, tossing his head, tried to mimic the word he had mashed into the status update box with everything his vocal cords could muster:
It was four thirty. The sky was becoming inky black.
Right now they would be there, his fourteen Likes, they would be there. He had won. He had really, really won. They had tried to stop him. But they hadn’t managed, they hadn’t managed!
Sobbing, Rashid picked up his inflatable shark and walked into the water.
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