Underdressed against the probing early-morning fog, a slim young man paused in the roadway between the two yellow-brick blocks to hear the future impatiently calling him on. It was an ugly sort of siren – no more than the soulless burr of one unseen machine cooling or heating another. But, like the tower behind him with its satellite dish trained towards the indifferent vastness of space, the chant symbolised things elsewhere, things unknown, things to come.
On a clear day the access road offered a sightline of at least half a mile, but the vapour that hung here in the concrete valley meant that the details of its surrounding structures were blurred beyond twenty of thirty metres. The closer of the two glass-clad metal footbridges was distinct enough, but the more distant appeared only as a darker patch in the fog. There were other shapes, too – a van, a skip, a road barrier – all at various stages of dissolution in this bleak wash. But there were no other people present. And this was what the young man had wanted.
The more I look, the less I smile he sang to himself, ignoring his senses with a will to enjoy the raw morning air. A low, synthetic, sustained D looped in his head and merged with the metallic hum. He had awoken early, and doing so knew straight away he had to seek out the sound, this sound, of alienation; the uncaring and relentless drone of the automatic. This sound would be the same wherever it was heard throughout his life. Alone along the bluish buildings of the Brisbane shoreline, alone staring out from the quayside at Harwich, alone among the brutalist towers of La Défense, but always beckoned by the monotone song of his future. He had to write it down; his life would be the libretto to this uncaring score, and in harmony they would form the theme of his beautiful, self-imposed loneliness.
He swung his camera bag around and took out his camera – the Praktika MTL5 was a recent Christmas present with love from Mum & Dad. There was nothing by any conventional definition worth depicting here, nothing you would wish to preserve and one day say to your wife and children ‘oh yes, that was that morning I got up and walked around pointlessly – here’s a picture of an access road in the fog’.
But still. He checked the frame and opted for the wide angle. With a 200 ASA film the needle of the primitive light meter demanded a wide aperture, but that was fine. Loss in depth of field means little at infinity. Besides, who cared? Surely that was the point of the scene. The shutter release was depressed.
Satisfied, the young man replaced the lens cap and carefully returned the camera lens-down to the padded bag, zipping it up and swivelling it back around his neck, a practiced swing of the hips acting as counterweight. He breathed in deeply through his nose, inhaling the bitterness of this exquisitely ugly landscape, and, after a few seconds, merged back into it, entering his future to the sostenuto welcome of unseen machinery. Or so he wrote.
Richard died when he was just 29. He kissed his wife and two-year-old daughter goodbye, drove to work, hung his coat up and then his heart stopped beating. The paramedics fought for half an hour, but my friend died in his office. His funeral was well-attended, his father inconsolable.
Graham was found dead on his bed in a small flat in Eastbourne. Complications of diabetes. He had no partner and hardly any family, and on clearing his room the only find that in any way interested his friends was a stash of exercise books containing neatly handwritten records of Chelsea matches going back some years.
Nicola wrote long and moving accounts of the progress of her disease on Facebook. These were very much in the ‘cheerful battle against cancer’ genre, but despite the impressive fortifications built on her positivity it was quite easy to see what she knew. In her final post she abandoned this redoubt. Consequently it was so poignant as to be pretty much unreadable.
One meaning of life
Unless we are religious or otherwise deluded we know that life comes to an end, and not just our own life. It’s simply a matter of time before the human race somehow extinguishes itself, or another asteroid strikes, or a global pandemic finishes us off. Even if it doesn’t, the expansion of our dying Sun will make life impossible long before the Earth is finally incinerated. The species that we may have evolved into is likely to have escaped this planet long before then, and that flight may prolong our DNA for some millions of years. But this is just a detail – the provable principles of entropy demand that life will end as the Universe careers on towards a soupy extinction that will then claim time itself as its victim.
As he matured, the man came to find this thought increasingly beautiful if not quite consoling. How fortunate we are to live during this blink of a summer during which life is possible on Earth! The future is not in any way uncertain. We will die and everything else with us. It’s just a matter of time, which will also die. This is the true joy of the moment. Because, he concluded, it’s all we are. It’s all that separates us from the rest of time, the only thing that separates us from being nothing.
Somehow, he never felt quite able to discount the possibility of a deathbed religious conversion.
In the early 1990s, the still-young man won a prize in a national short story competition. In addition to a reasonable cash sum the organisers offered representation for a year with a firm of literary agents. He threw the certificate away and didn’t write anything else for a quarter of a century.
The children came soon after this award, along with a suite of jobs that all seemed the right thing to do at the time. The curriculum vitae became, one head-hunter said, ‘gold-plated’. The man was never quite sure how good he was at any of the individual jobs, but he felt that he must be good at, well, something?
He wrote songs. They weren’t bad, and the lyrics were often good, but they were always perfectly unfashionable and this was not at all surprising, since the man cared so little for fashion that he thought for most of his middle age that wearing a blazer with a T-shirt and chinos amounted to understated cool.
Sometimes, he wondered whether he would ever have an idea strong enough to bear the weight of a novel. That question remained unanswered.
Overall, life was pretty good. He travelled, he lived in Sweden and Australia. He had good friends, a great marriage, wonderful kids. Only one emotional cataclysm, only a couple of serious depressive episodes. He didn’t find happiness easy, but he found himself quite resilient. Almost despite himself, the career went well (measured through the eyes of others, at least).
Where does that take us?
Back to the beginning. The machines had been replaced but their successors made that same noise; he knew that because he stood there just a few days ago. Where once the low hum was talismanic of a young man’s melancholic desire for alienation and aroused a sense of excitement for every possible future, now it evoked these senses only in quotation marks, only as a memory of a memory.
Of course, only one future played out – that is really a tautology – and it led him back to this unremarkable place. There was nothing peculiar about that, other than that the odds against it were so dizzying. No, what was strange was the number of futures that did not materialise, and the random course of the one that did. Why did some of his friends die? Why did he not – yet? Why did he turn down, or not see, or not want, all the opportunities offered to him? Why had some opportunities never been offered at all? Why had he been so fortunate? Why had he been so afraid?
Some argue that the only questions worth answering begin with ‘what’ or ‘how’ and that the ‘whys’ – the big ones anyway – are unanswerable or irrelevant. I tend to agree, and so you can make your own mind up about perspective. The cosmic future is utterly certain – it is individual life itself that holds the allure of uncertainty for all of us.
Meanwhile, there is nothing more uncertain than the past. For years – until now, in fact – I remembered that first chilly scene the way I described it. Lovely loneliness. There were no other people present. But look carefully under the bridge, to the right. There is another person, another man or woman disappearing into the mist of their own personal narrative. Did I know that when I took the picture?
As for me, well it would be perfectly possible to trace the fragile thread of causality from this chair, this desk, right now, all the way back to February 1984 to find my silly young self seeking some kind of romantic expression of a solipsistic and failed ambition to be perfectly alone.
I could do that. But I won’t.
One more thing
When they were both in their late teens, the man had thought himself in love with the middle-aged woman who now sat in his bachelor kitchen in Kennington. This had been expressed through various post-adolescent songs and poems, of which the following stanza is representative:
And did you really walk, your hands entwined, along the moonlit river Seine?
Did a pavement café violin sing to you on your way?
Or were you there as cold a shoulder ever turned to anyone
Was shown to you one morning as the red turned back to grey
For the man, the passion that once gave birth to these lines had drowned long before, and would not in any case have survived the trauma he was now undergoing. That story does not belong here: it’s enough to know that it had in any case led to a temporary rekindling of old friendships such as this.
As for the woman, her life had been colourful. She had lived in central Africa for a while before her divorce; a young girl had died in the back of her Land Rover on a hopeless mercy dash to the nearest medical station. Later on she was engaged to marry a far younger Albanian man, but on the day of her intended wedding the British police had intervened and thrown the paperless immigrant into a cell.
After an adequate meal, the former schoolmates sat chatting amicably, warmed by the wine and the company, he lighting an occasional cigarette and apologising for this, she reminding him that it was his own kitchen.
‘So what do you think you’re going to do now, then?’ Her eyes demanded an honest answer, not least for old times’ sake. He had no power to provide such a response, but his tone was nonetheless factual.
‘I don’t know. How can I? I can’t make sense of any of this. Everyone gets hurt, everyone is already hurt. I don’t even really know what my options are because there is no right, only wrong.’
‘Well, you were wrong but that was then. You’re eventually going to have to let go of that and work out what’s right for now.’ She looked down in embarrassed acknowledgement of the homespun quality of this remark.
He drew on his cigarette and placed it on the edge of the dirty plate to burn itself out. There were possibilities here, tonight, in this once longed-for situation, but now he didn’t desire any of them. This conversation with the first woman he had ever thought he truly loved was a pleasant diversion amid the intermittent gloom, but it was only that. He smiled, sighed, stood and began to gather the plates together in a sign that it might be time for the coda – a coffee, a walk to the bus stop.
She placed her hand on his forearm to stop the clattering of cutlery and allow space to deliver her big line.
‘You know, there are possibilities, good ones, wherever you look. Even in this room,’ she said, just twenty years too late.
Wiltshire born and Sussex bred, Trevor Datson used to translate for a living but he made a full recovery and now mainly writes for business and pleasure. He now lives in Knaphill and travels the world in pursuit of things he is fairly sure aren’t there.
Featured photo: Through the University of Surrey in the evening © Tristan Ferne