On the nature of loneliness

When I was young I always ached for adventure. Probably the side-effect of living at the edge of a village. There was a field at the top of my street and a wood to the back. There were always horses frolicking at the fence, hoping the local kids would bring them treats.

I spent most of my spare time in the woods. I’d play with the others in my street. Luckily, the street had been designed for young families, so there was half a dozen of us within a couple of years of each other. We’d make forts and dens together. Climb trees and make swings. There was a small river where we’d try, and always fail, to catch tiddlers and frogs. The most we ever managed was the annual bucket-load of frogspawn. Ideal for when we were served tapioca for school dinners.

One spring, the horses left to be replaced with corn, which meant we could add hay-bale fortresses to our itinerary of mischief. Eventually, the trees grew smaller and the dens abandoned as we discovered sports trophies, girls and alcohol. The spirit of adventure faltered within me.

O levels were followed by A levels and we all said our goodbyes as the adventure of life continued. Some went to local colleges, others got jobs. Most went to the local uni. I would have gone too, but I didn’t get the grades! So, my adventure took me south to college.

 

One spring, during my final year, I went back to my village. My folks no-longer lived there. They’d separated the previous year. I’d borrowed my Mam’s car and drove to my old street. Nothing was right. The garages were too small, and the wrong colour. The faces playing football were none I knew. I couldn’t stay.

I drove to the main road, but I couldn’t decide where I wanted to go. I parked and walked to the farmers gate at the bottom of the field that was adjacent to my street. It was approaching twilight. I left the car and stood at the gate, with my chest resting against the top bar.

What happened to the adventure? At what point did I loose sight of it? How old was I? Was it when I kissed a girl for the first time? When I went to see my first gig or had my first pint?

I leapt over the fence and started wading through the knee-high crop. I wanted something to happen, as the light began to fade. Maybe I’d hear a strange noise? Something supernatural? Maybe I’d fall over a body, or discover a half-buried treasure?

Wait a minute! How old I am? Seven? What am I doing here?

Life is the adventure, not buried treasure or murdered people. Those things, for the most part, aren’t real. I certainly won’t come across anything other than corn and stones in this field. Time to go back to Mam’s.

 

And so life continued. I found my way to Uni eventually. After a diversion or two. My degree was average, but what I expected. I enrolled on a graduate program at an energy company and within a few years I was a district manager. I was highly organised and a natural leader.

I was married to a pharmacologist who I’d met at the counter in Boots when I was buying my annual supply of hay fever remedies. We were comfortable and planning our family.

I had a small but nice circle of friends. We had dinner at each other’s houses and enjoyed our regular Friday nights at the cinema. I’d occasionally go to see a football or rugby match at weekends, especially when the girls were out shopping.

This was my adventure. This was my life.

 

Last night the film we wanted to see was a long one, which meant an earlier showing than usual. We decided to follow it by a late pizza. Just for a change. The movie was a Hollywood blockbuster. Perfect for Friday night. Probably the only time when over-wrought and hokey don’t matter. A chance to let the week’s work be washed away with aliens and heroes.

Just what the doctor ordered.

Conversation over pizza was the old favourite whenever we see a Sci-Fi; are there really aliens out there? As usual, I stoutly defend humanities uniqueness in the universe. I always remember reading a book when I was in my late teens which mentioned a theory by someone called Fermi or Ferni. I can never quite recall the name or the details, but it was something along the lines of given the size and age of the universe, then if there were aliens on another planet, then where are they now? I couldn’t agree more! So, I held my position using this time-trusted argument. The conversation soon moved onto the universe itself and whether it was created by God. We’d all been involved in this discussion before, and as the main course and second round of beers arrived, it was one we all engaged in with relish. I would describe myself, on the UK census, as Christian, although not of any particular denomination. I was married in a church and I believe in God. My wife is more or less a believer, but sits more on the agnostic side of the fence. However, whenever we go to church – you know, weddings, christenings and funerals – she belts out those hymns as if she knows God is listening to her. Nice voice too.

So I defend the position that God made us in His universe. She’s a little more sceptical. One of my friends is a humanist, while her partner is more like me. She puts her cards down on the side of science, and her fella backs her up, despite his own beliefs.

Pizza over and its time to head home. Everyone has had an enjoyable and fully engaging evening, and the tribulations of the working week are thoroughly washed out of our systems. We can now look forward to the weekend with eager anticipation.

 

Lying in bed I turn to my wife and suggest that as we have nothing planned for Sunday, we should go along to church, and then head out into the country for Sunday Lunch. Half asleep she agrees, although while yawning, confirms that she hasn’t forgotten about a christening?

 

When I wake this morning the bed is cold and empty. Not so unusual. I often sleep late on Sundays and I find my wife downstairs reading the paper.

I notice, however, that’s its dark outside. That is, there’s no chink of light teasing its way past the edge of the curtains. I look over at my alarm clock. Its only 6.45am.

Concerned, I’m now fully awake, sitting on the edge of the bed hunting for my slippers in the dark.

I call my wife’s name. No answer. I yell this time. Nothing but silence.

I’m now running down the stairs while wrapping my bath rob around me. The house is in darkness and feels unfamiliar. I can feel panic rising inside of me. It is like molten lava boiling up from my gut, spewing and erupting through my mind. One day, when I had a particularly stressful day at work – I was close to failing to meet a deadline for a personnel review – I had 6 cups of coffee. This felt worse.

The stairs lead down to a long hall way. I hit the light switch at the bottom to find I was already in the lounge. The light reacts with my senses and my arm automatically cover my eyes. My breathing increased in pace as sweat formed on my brow. Maybe my sense of panic had led to disorientation.

I let the light in a little at a time. I survey the scene.

This is not my lounge. This is not my lounge!

Where the hell I am? How did I get here? Whose place is this? I close my eyes, trying to slow my breathing, steady the pounding of my heart. Eventually, I open my eyes and once more, look around me. There is no trace that a couple live in this house. There is a dark blue sofa jammed up against the wall, opposite a huge TV. Underneath, there are a menagerie of gadgets; DVD, video, games console, Skybox and a couple of boxes I don’t recognise, and there are wires, remotes and control devices scattered across the threadbare grey carpet. There is a PC sitting in the corner, with wires snaking their way to the TV. Every other inch of wall is taken up with shelves. And on these? Books, DVDs, games, CDs, videos, a very smart looking separates Hi-fi system. I uproot myself to examine the books. I’m not much of a reader myself. I like the occasional Stephen King or John Grisham, but I don’t own many copies. That’s what the library is for; storing books.

The books on the shelf fall into two broad categories: physics and science fiction. I run my finger along a few spines. There are variations on the theme. Most of which I’m never heard of at all. But there’s On the Origin of Species and A Brief History of Time. On a separate shelf, there’re some books by Satre and Russell. And a load of other people who I’ve not heard of. Grayling, Kierkegaard, Dennett.

On a different shelf I recognise Lord of the Rings – hey, I’ve read that one! Preferred the films.

The DVDs are almost all science fiction and fantasy. Lots of TV shows all lined up in series. Monkey! I recall watching that as a kid. I smile.

Then I remember. Where I am? Where’s my wife? What is going on?

Light is starting to come through the blinds. I pull them up, not knowing what to expect. The scene is a busy road. People are hurrying past my window, presumably on their way to work. Cars and trucks trundle by.

A noise pierces the silence around me and I jump so hard it feels like my heart, stomach and brain all inhabit the same space, about 2 foot above my head. Something upstairs? I determine to figure out what the shit is going on.

There are no stairs in the hall.

Standing with my back to the living room I see 2 doors. The far one is glass. A kitchen lies beyond it. The other is ajar. It is the entrance to a bedroom. Opening the door I see a bed, a wardrobe, a set of un-matching drawers and a bedside cabinet. Little else. No pictures on the walls. A couple of books and magazines on the floor, and a pile of clothes in the corner. This is the bedroom of a single man. Is this my bedroom?

My mobile phone sits on the bedside table next to an old alarm clock. I slump on the bed and reach for the phone. I look through my list of contacts.

There are no names I recognise, other than my immediate family. No wife. No work colleagues. No work I know of. The list is just a bunch of names. And not very long. 12 tops.

This information washes over me. My surroundings wrap their arms around me.

This is me. This is my home. This is my life.

 

Eight hours later I am standing in the middle of the field at the top of the street where I grew up. I called my office at the University where I work to see if I was needed for anything in the coming week. I said there were a few things I needed to deal with and might not be around, but I could be reached on my mobile if needed. I hired a car – I suddenly don’t own a car anymore – and drove 5 straight hours to get here. I drove into my street, the little cul-de-sac that had made me.

I recall a conversation I once had with some of my colleagues.

We were on a field expedition to Mongolia. We’d been granted permission to visit and assist the Chinese group working there, on the condition that anything we found naturally belonged to the Chinese people, and by extension, the ruling party. We were sitting around a camp fire hundreds of miles from the nearest civilisation. There were four representatives from the West, two interpreters, several local guides, the Chinese scientists and half-a-dozen Chinese officials. The debate was on the nature of the universe. All the westerners, myself included, were atheists and humanists. Most of the local and Chinese delegation were Buddhists, with a couple of Taoists and some with smaller local shamanistic beliefs.

As usual, I was defending the notion that you can’t have religion without empirical evidence. God would have to exist outside the realm of the universe in order to exist without some evidence. Any deity would be therefore outside science. Without requisite proof, therefore, I could not accept God. Any proof of existence automatically denies the need to exist. Via an interpreter, one of our Mongolian hosts made the comment that that was a terribly bleak and nihilist point of view. The conversation soon moved on to the origin of the universe, but my heart, at that point, wasn’t in it…

Now, standing here in the field where I played and learned as a child, I finally understood his point. In this universe that I have created around me, I have no-one to love, and there is no-one who loves me. I climb the fence and wade through the swaying wheat. There is a figure who looks a lot like me, about 20 or so metres away. And then I am on my knees and tears are pouring down my face.

I hear a sound and to my left a crow escapes the crop and flies to freedom. My heart races. Through my tears, I watch a ladybird crawl up a stalk of wheat. I try to remember the point of my life when I lost sight of this beauty that surrounds me? Or did I ever lose it? Maybe I couldn’t see for looking?

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