written by Alex Smith
I met the Switcher at the edge of a pier, on a rainy morning in February. That was what they called him: no name, no forwarding address, not even a phone number, just “the Switcher”. He was tall, and lanky, and drooped against the iron railings like an old coat hanging off a peg. Younger than I was expecting, or at least he looked it. He couldn’t have been a day over thirty, with his bright skin and clean-shaven cheeks. He looked out over the blacky-grey sea and waved at me.
‘Call me Jack – for convenience.’ That was the first thing he said to me. The Switcher – sorry, Jack – tossed a coin end over end through the air, and caught it without looking at it. ‘What can I do for you?’
I swallowed. The pier was mostly wooden, and rainwater coagulated into the gaps in the planks like festering mould. There were puddles growing beneath my boots.
‘I’m looking for a miracle.’
‘Well, I would hope so.’ He cracked a smile, and tossed the coin again.
‘I heard you were the sort of person to speak to.’
‘And where did you hear that, Mrs…?’
‘Ronen.’ I hesitated for a moment and held out my hand. ‘Katherine Ronen.’
‘Katherine.’ He stopped flipping his coin, but didn’t take the handshake. ‘Do your friends call you Kathy?’
‘Do your friends call you Jack?’
He grinned. ‘Let’s get out of this.’
We found a little cafe across the road from the pier, still close enough to see the pebbles of the beach rippling and rolling in the uneasy tide. I ordered a black coffee, and asked if they had any napkins. Jack ordered a full English breakfast – and it really was full, the plate on the edge of overflowing with grease and red sauce. It looked ridiculous put down in front of him, stick-thin as he was. He sat leaning back in his chair, like a school kid, while the waitress brought over our drinks.
‘You didn’t say before.’ He was still tossing his coin, and had made no move to touch his meal. ‘Who told you about me?’
I shrugged. ‘Nobody really told me anything, exactly. It was all a bit – well. You know. Forums and chatrooms, that sort of thing. People would say they’d heard rumours, and then other people would say they’d heard completely different rumours. But some of the details stayed the same, and I’d pick those details out, and sort of…’ I shrugged again. ‘I just figured out how to find you.’
‘Evidently.’ He whistled. ‘Bloody twitter. It’ll be the death of me.’
He leaned forwards and poured himself out some tea. ‘Used to be the case, that you helped work out a problem for someone and they left you well enough alone. Nowadays everybody wants to talk about it. As if secrets weren’t in short enough supply already.’
‘So you do?’
‘Work out problems for people.’
He spread his arms, balancing precariously on the back legs of the chair. ‘Depends on what the problem is.’
‘Right.’ I sipped my coffee. It tasted a little strange; I had only started drinking it without milk recently. It still took a little getting used to, and every time I put a cup to my lips I surprised myself by drinking something bitter instead of something sweet. I wiped my mouth with one of the napkins the unsmiling waiter had provided for us. ‘His name is Laurence.’
Jack held his mug with his free hand, drumming his fingers across the handle. ‘Laurence. Your son?’
‘Yes. How did you know?’
‘It so often is.’ Clink. Coin went up, coin went down. He snatched it out of the air, and threw it up again. ‘What can I do for Laurence?’
I thought that might get some sort of reaction out of him, even just a little one. Widened eyes, a gasp of shock, something. He didn’t even fumble his catch. This time, he caught it with his palm held flat. He held it out to me and I could see that the penny had landed on heads.
‘Okay. Natural causes?’
He looked at me steadily, tea in one hand, coin in the other. He withdrew the penny, curling his fingers around it like it was a pearl growing in his palm, and set the mug down on the rickety little table between us. ‘Alright then. Shouldn’t be too difficult.’
I expected him to say more, but he didn’t. He unravelled a flimsy knife and fork from their plastic wrapper, and started to eat. He was a delicate eater, precise with his cutlery, squaring each mouthful with almost geometric precision before he raised it to his lips. I sat, sipping my coffee, watching him eat, and waited.
‘I suppose the only real question is, are you sure you want to do this?’
We were back on the pier. The rain had let up, though only a little, and the tide had grown even more restless in our absence; great swathes of shingle battered the thin beams holding us out of the water, and the sound of it grinding against the wood made me shiver in my jacket.
‘You understand the ramifications?’
‘I – I think so.’
Jack sighed. ‘Well, it’ll make more sense after we’ve finished. Let’s get going.’
He threw his coin to me, and when I caught it we were standing inside a hospital ward in the middle of the night. Dim halogen bulbs illuminated the corridor, and from all around them came the muted muttering of the ill and infirm. The rain of the pier was gone, replaced with an uncomfortable heat. I stumbled, falling heavily against a rough wall plastered with laminated posters. Don’t forget to wash your hands! I drew back, feeling light-headed. After the hiss of the tide and the roar of the rocks, the muted, uncomfortable silence of the hospital ward felt deafening. I was still shivering; I couldn’t stop. Jack watched without speaking as I regained my balance, as I fought back the urge to be sick. Eventually, the feeling passed. I straightened up and turned to him.
‘2003?’ He asked.
‘2002. First day of December.’
‘Ah. I was close.’
We walked together down the length of the ward. Voices floated over the blue curtains, pulled up and around the beds like palls. A nurse wandered past, looking harried, and barely glanced at us.
‘Are we, you know, invisible?’
‘Not exactly. More like unimportant. They tend not to notice me.’
I turned his penny over in my hand as he led me out of the ward and into the innards of the building. It was a two pence piece, battered, a little rusty even, and it was icy against my skin.
‘How do you do it?’ I asked him. He just tutted at me. Didn’t reply. I had known before I opened my mouth that he wouldn’t; it seemed like the sensible thing to say, that was all.
We found ourselves outside a door with a heavy, expensive-looking electric lock.
‘Fancy,’ I murmured. Jack chuckled, and pushed the door open. The lock bleeped as we stepped through.
The room felt familiar, even though I was quite certain I had never been inside it before. It was warm, even warmer than outside, the bulbs a glimmering orange; and, lining the walls, row upon row of incubators. Jack led me over to the closest three, these smooth Plexiglas pods, which I realised as we approached were occupied.
‘What happens now?’ I could hardly breathe.
‘Now,’ Jack said, ‘for the switch.’
As soon as he took the coin from me the illusion faded. Well – I call it an illusion, but I don’t think that’s quite the right word for it. Jack pocketed the coin without a second glance at it, and rubbed his hands together. The rain had stopped altogether now, and the pier was starting to fill up. Tourists, pensioners, yobs – all the sorts of people you’d expect to find on a pier at one o’ clock on a Tuesday afternoon.
‘Where is Laurence now?’ I asked him.
‘He won’t be called Laurence anymore, for a start,’ Jack told me. ‘And I can’t quite say. Could be his family won the lottery and flew off to live in Florida. Could be he fell off a climbing frame when he was three and ended up paralysed from the neck down. All I know is, he isn’t where he was before.’
‘Oh.’ I blinked. I was not going to cry in front of him. I refused to. ‘And I’m the only one who’ll remember… That?’
‘Yes. As far as everyone else is concerned, the other boy – he’ll be named Laurence, now – he was your son.’
‘And no one will ever know otherwise.’
‘That’s how this works.’
‘Right.’ I paused. ‘I have a daughter-’
‘Whose brother still died in a car crash, as far as she knows.’ Jack pushed himself up from the iron railing, and no longer looked like an old coat hanging off a peg. ‘History is different now. The world is different now, but no one knows that. That’s just how the switch works.’
I didn’t have anything else left to say after that. I thought about Laurence, or whatever his name was now, doing what it was he did in this new life he suddenly had. I thought about this new boy, too, this other boy’s face in my photographs, a new child living the same life – right to the very end, with the screaming and the shattering of metal and glass. There had been two, I realised. Two other occupied incubators, in the hospital.
I had been turning to leave, but I glanced back. Jack was still there, staring out across the sea. He noticed me watching him, and raised an eyebrow.
‘How did you choose?’ I asked him. ‘How did you choose which boy to swap?’
He smiled, and flipped his coin. It sailed through the air, end over end, and vanished into his palm as if it had never been there at all.