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I can scare myself witness at the prospect of getting older, and I seem to do so more and more frequently as the body begins to sag and the realisation of diminishing returns finally starts to sink in. It’s the fear loneliness, isolation and ultimately abandonment that can cut me to the core. With each passing year I move further and further away from those youthful passions that for so long enriched my life and helped define who I was.
Never mind raging against the dying of the light. It’s the onset of late afternoon that’s currently causing me grief.
I pick up the morning paper and start reading on the train. Two young French students were tied up, gagged and stabbed over 240 times in a flat in New Cross, after which their bodies were torched. I recoil in horror yet I’m compelled to keep reading. For the rest of the day I’m depressed as my imagination keeps replaying the dreadful scenario over and over in my head. Two young engineers, by all accounts brilliant, here for a three month placement, their lives simply snuffed out by some low-life, homicidal vermin. The utter senseless of it! The utter waste!
I remember when she came to us. She said she didn’t do art. Both her parents died on the same day but in different years. Since then she’s been brought up by her five older sisters. While with us she’s learned to trust a little more, both in others but more importantly in herself. As for not doing art, I’ve rarely seen someone so young take to paint so wholeheartedly, finding a vehicle in colour, shape and texture for expressing things she as yet has no words for. We’ve all become incredibly fond of her and we will miss her.
I spend a lot of my working week in transit and while I do my best to maximise the benefits (reading, writing, listening to music, etc.) there are times when the thought of spending nearly 20 hours a week on London transport gets me down. Granted, most of us need to travel to work but I know of few people who spend as much time on the road as I do. The thing is, I really love the job and I really love where we live, and in between those two facts there’s not a lot of room to manoeuvre.
I sit next to the woman reading about the gospels on the bus and my mind turns to the friend whom for whatever reason and without explanation decided to close the door on our friendship. And I can’t help wondering whether this time round it’s better to let sleeping dogs lie or whether to try and reach out one more time. I know which option I want to pursue but the prospect of rejection is dispiriting. Then again, I have broad shoulders, and what’s a little rejection compared to the possibility of renewal? Like they say, nothing ventured, nothing gained.
I’m watching the Federer versus Nadal match on TV and I’m in awe of the incredible battle of wills unfolding before me. Such mental focus, such training, such strength of character, such physical prowess. The crowd grapples with torn loyalties. It’s one of the things I love about tennis. There are no villains. The players become known to us. We watch them grow, develop and over time, triumph. It’s easy to get swept up in the emotion of team sports but with tennis it all comes down to the individual. And the individuals concerned today are nothing short of mesmerizing.
I put on some music to fill the empty space and it suddenly occurs to me that I rarely sing anymore. Singing is good for the spirit. There was a time I used to sing a lot. That was in the day when I only had a handful of albums, each of which I knew intimately. In my constant pursuit of new music and my insatiable appetite for collecting it I listen to a great deal but I tend not to revisit it over and over as I did when I was younger. Consequently, I don’t really sing much anymore.
I go online to check my email and on the Yahoo homepage I can’t help but notice the headline in small print about another teenage death from stabbing this year, the 19th to date. Kids killing kids over a cross word, an ill look, a heated argument or in this case, a school blazer. There were more than 14,000 stabbings in the UK last year. Knife crime has now eclipsed terrorism as the police’s number one preoccupation. Another article I read recently suggested that knife carrying has “entered the DNA of British teenagers today”. It’s enough to make one weep.
I set off for the bus stop, my umbrella shielding me from the elements while listening to Jamie Cullum’s rendition of “Singing in the Rain” after a day in which I completed everything on my To Do list, and then some, and it occurs to me that maybe happiness really is a choice. There will never be any shortage of awful things to read about in the papers; dire predictions about the future and terrible stories about the dreadful things that people do to other people. But just for the moment it’s raining, the music’s good and I’m feeling fine.
I don’t think of myself as being superstitious. I have a fondness for black cats, blue moons and the number 13. When it comes to London buses however, and in particular the number 24, any pretence of rationalism evaporates for I am utterly convinced that London Transport is involved in a conspiracy to ensure that regardless of the time I set off in the morning there is always a bus pulling away from the bus stop just as I’m descending the stairs to the street below. It’s a fact of life; a theory I’ve tested too many times to fault.
I just don’t know. Is it about compromise? And if so, how can that be healthy? If it’s not, then why this creeping feeling of emptiness that won’t go away? Where’s the optimism of my younger years and the sense that life was actually going somewhere? It’s not that I’m an emotional cripple. Nor am I manically depressed. I have a good life. It’s just that I keep feeling as though something’s been lost along the way, something essential that, by its absence, casts everything else into shadow, leaving me hungering for the feel of the sun on my face.
I do this to myself sometimes. I let myself go to that place where nothing, by definition, can change. I end up throwing salt onto old wounds that never seem to heal over, like shovelling sand into a bottomless pit in the vain hope that I might just fill it. The rational and irrational go head to head in a contest that neither ultimately wins and which at best results in an uneasy truce. It’s no wonder we humans find it necessary to invent a heaven and a hell, dogged by our own private demons while harbouring illusions of sainthood.
I am by turns both an optimist at heart yet capable of surrendering to the most debilitating of dark dreams; nightmares if you must. There were a few years where the darkness receded; when the anxiety of existential angst had seemingly disappeared from my life. Love can have that effect. Yet love itself can be a fragile creature and no beating heart beats forever. I think it’s the spectre of being ultimately alone in the universe that grips mine ever more tightly with each passing year; that coupled with the creeping realisation that everything in life ultimately comes to naught.
I gaze down at the old woman clutching her freedom pass while she patiently waits to board the bus. The view from up here is good but I know she won’t be climbing the stairs to enjoy it. She stands, a little wobbly on her pins while around her everyone surges forwards, each lost in their own thoughts, some on their way to work, others to school or maybe some to the shops. Were all simply going about our business, sharing a short bus ride and then going our separate ways, like the old woman below clutching her freedom pass.
I’m on a crowded train deep in the bowels of the city and I realise I’m not going to get a seat. I’ve usually a sixth sense about where to position myself on the platform to best maximise my chances of finding that odd empty seat and I’ve pretty much perfected the technique for reaching it ahead of my rivals. And let’s be honest here: they are my rivals. But today I’ve been outsmarted by the guy who so innocuously requested that I move further along please, and then seized upon the one empty seat in the carriage. The bastard.
I’m on the home run. One week from today and it’s all over red rover for another school year. Two weeks from today I’ll be in Melbourne. Three weeks from today I’ll be in Adelaide. Four weeks from today I’ll be back in Melbourne again, as I will be five weeks from today. Six weeks from today I’ll be back in London and in seven weeks I’ll be heading back to work again. It’s all a bit predictable really. Nonetheless, I’m looking forward to the change of pace; spending time with family, seeing old friends and revisiting my other life.
I don’t know how to fix this: how to stem the flow and turn the tide. For a long time I’ve been denial, choosing to opt for the too hard basket, hoping that maybe it was all just in my head and that maybe it just needed more time. But increasingly time is becoming part of the problem because the more that time passes the less I see any likelihood of things improving or getting any better. Increasingly what seemed slightly worn is looking broken, which scares the hell out of me because I don’t know how to fix it.
I’m sitting on the bus listening to Rachel Yamagata after a couple of Magnum ciders at the pub with a couple of colleagues from work on the day when we’ve waved off the current crop of students for the school year and spent a much needed hour or two reflecting back on the events of the day and the term just passed. I’m feeling a curious mixture of mental stimulation as I go over in my mind a range of possible new curriculum directions for the new term plus a profound sense of mental exhaustion after a highly productive year.
I switch on the TV to see yet another grieving family suffering after their 16 year old son is knifed to death, the 21st youth to die this year from knife crime. It’s an epidemic in this country and especially in this city. We’re losing more kids to knives that we are troops overseas. It’s a situation the government claims is becoming more pressing than the threat of terrorism. Ironically, we’re also told that overall crime figures are falling across the country but that’s cold comfort to those whose lives have been devastated by the senseless murder of a child.
I can see it up ahead; the light at the end of the tunnel, if indeed a tunnel is what I find myself in of late. For someone who for so long boasted of having artfully dodged his midlife crisis it occurs to me now that it crept up on me from behind some time ago. But it can’t go on forever. There has to come a point where something positive emerges from the shadows. I don’t know that I’m quite there yet but I’m increasingly confident of moving in the right direction. In the meantime I’ll keep plugging away.
I find myself becoming increasingly dispirited at times. I mean, I am who I am. I can’t be someone or something I’m not. Yet time and time again I get the feeling that for you that is just not good enough. But what would you have me be, and who? Yes, we are different. Yes, we approach things in different ways. Yes, there are times when we disappoint each other. But it’s not as though we do it on purpose. It’s not as though either of us set out to hurt each other. And ultimately, I can only be myself.
I’m looking at myself while shaving in the bathroom mirror and it dawns on me that it was a year ago that Ricky drowned on a warm sunny like today while paddle boating with his niece and nephew on a lake in the south of France. At different times everyone hopped into the water for a swim but sadly, Ricky never hopped out again. By the time anyone realised he was missing it was too late. It took three days to find his body.
It’s a fine line between being and non-being, even on a warm, sunny day in France.
I just can’t take in anything new at the moment. I’m completely out of mind space. It’s now time to step back, take a break, change focus and turn my attention to other things. I’m feeling the call of Melbourne. I’m ready to spend time with family and friends in a different hemisphere, in a different place and to draw energy from that other life I have far away from here. For much as I love this city, right now I just need to be shot of London for a while and all my associated responsibilities here and be elsewhere.
I sit watching Mick Jigger strutting his stuff in
Shine A Light
and I think to myself, he’s the genuine article. He has the body of a 20 year old and the energy to match. He’s almost the same age as my father when he died 30 years ago and to me he was an old man. He was certainly no Jagger. In an age when so many bands are hitting the comeback trail to try and top up their retirement funds, the Stones have never stopped. There’s no one remotely like them, and more power to them for it.
I’m crossing the tarmac from the transit bus and I’m casting a critical eye over the huge metallic bird looming before me. What is that scratch on the undercarriage and why is there an apparent graze next to the pilot’s window? The paintwork leaves a little to be desired, too. It’s clearly not the most recent model in the fleet. Climbing the steps to board I inspect the two enormous engines seemingly defying gravity beneath the wing for any apparent irregularities. Not that I would recognise any. To Icarus, flying was an act of faith. To me, it still is.
I settle back into the seat after an hour in transit at Hong Kong. As I do so the passenger next to me is telling me about his friends on the very same flight as ours yesterday in which an explosion blew a massive hole in the undercarriage. Fortunately they were able to land in Manila but not without thinking they were all going to die. I was initially going to be on that flight but then I decided to have an extra day in London.
I open the newspaper and read the full story. There but for the grace . . .
I look at you and I see myself 20 years ago. You look at me and you see yourself 20 years hence. To be with you again, to spend time in your presence and breathe the same air is a sublime pleasure that we share in equal measure. You’re that rare combination – the brother I always wanted, the son I never had and my dearest friend all rolled into one. We will always know each other; always be there for each other; our friendship a safe harbour into which we sail for reaffirmation and reassurance in a challenging and uncertain world.
I open the gate and am greeted by an overflowing bin and bags of refuse scattered over the pebble garden. Once inside the house my heart sinks as I take stock of its current condition. I’ve given myself eight days to get the job done. I’m hoping it will be enough. For a while I simply potter around, unsure of where to begin. Then, as the light begins to fade, I find myself getting into it but with no electricity until tomorrow I have to leave it. Nonetheless, what seemed overwhelming now feels more manageable and a challenge to relish.
I’m sitting in bed at 3.20am and I can’t bring myself to turn out the light. I haven’t slept here for eight years. It’s the first time it’s been empty in that time. I spent the day bringing order to the garden. This evening, Ben came by. We sat drinking beer by candlelight in front of an old electric heater talking about the things we talk about when we get together. When he left I continued cleaning. There’s so much that needs attending to. In so doing I begin to claim the house back again. But I still can’t sleep.
I should be asleep now. I’m up in a few hours to go and see the accountant. But today is my last day of being 48, and I’m reluctant to let go of it. I’ve spent so much time thinking about being 49 and talking up 50 that I’ve tended to overlook being 48. After today it will be gone forever, and one day so will I. But just at this point in time I’m in a good place, in my own place, and feeling satisfied with the day now passing. And so, as they say, all things must pass . . .
I remember Bronwen giving me a birthday card back in the 80s. I can’t recall whether we were still together or apart. No matter. On the front of the card were some little illustrations of animals and a ditty based on the words, “Hippo birdy, two ewes.” I can still recall her face creasing with laughter as she presented it to me and since that time we’ve often sung “Hippo birdy, two ewes” to each other.
Tonight was spent with James and Fusun with whom another set of birthday memories were created. Such warmth; such love. Hippo birdy to me!
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