This old life
By Simon Barget
There you are, yet again, holed up in your car, safe and protected, wedged between all the other cars, fighting to get home again but for what; the car you’ve sat in umpteen times whose interior you know in minute detail, the translucent sheen of its lacquered panels, its tough, stodgy leather-covered seats, its erumpent hyper-modern, almost vaginally-smooth gear stick, its exaggeratedly sportified speedometer and revometer -- the omniscient, multifarious console which ceased to arouse you within two weeks of leaving the showroom-- the nobbly cream carpet, the anticipated incremental resistance of the steering wheel as you grip it in the hope that your nugatory input can somehow infiltrate the deterministic spectre of this moment; the car advances three feet until you’re forced to bring it to a jolty stop since you’re disinclined to bear the consequences of dinging into the silver Prius in front. Now the stain of familiarity sets in. Another day substantially over. Everything is familiar, nauseatingly familiar, dead; all eternally boring and lustreless to the eye. You dwindle beyond resignation in some sort of purgatorial quagmire. There is neither anger, fear, disappointment, nor any other cogently recognisable emotion. You are lethargically despondent, narcotised, with the muted energy of a child whose tantrum hasn’t borne fruit. A faint buzz in your temples signals that you’re still living. It’s not true to say that your heart is heavy, because you don’t feel that you have one. Blood somehow courses through your veins though you’re far from conscious of any pulse. Just an automaton with a capacity for resentment. You fiddle mechanically with knobs levers and widgets. Check your phone is in its cradle. Readjust your buttocks repeatedly merely to invigorate; a sort of a pushing-then-pulling-back-motion until they finally gravitate to a comfortable resting place. Reach out for your phone again because you thought you saw its LED flashing but it was just the play of cloud-cast light on the passenger window. You hanker for the interruption but simultaneously dread it because it could be a call back to the office. You’re always fidgeting because the present moment is intolerable. It is not really intolerable, it has just become a habit to consider this time as a time to deflect into another more valuable time, weekends, holidays, anything not work-related. Accepting that you have a choice in the matter is just too arduous for you so you plump for unhappiness instead, though you’re not declaring that you want to be unhappy, you merely feel powerless to alter your circumstances. No energy, no imagination, everything stultified and infused with predictability. It could just be possible that the world, your life, as you ossify in a canopied north London boulevard, is passing you by.
You’re totally disinterested in the other road users, but to the extent you retain some peripheral awareness of them, you despise them -- you’d kill if you had to -- and now that no one’s close enough to judge, you’re free to do it from the safety of your own sordid fantasy so you feel slightly powerful, perhaps shamelessly so, as you cast primal, murderous glances at each oncoming apparition. The deliberate manner in which the figures approach then pass delivers a similar sensation to that of viewing slides on a screen. Each slide when viewed is irrelevant, forgotten and ignored as if never there in the first place. Each human-being committed to dust. If you weren’t all pent up and turned in on yourself, you might examine every face scrupulously and notice that each wears a version of a scowl, or a look of tremulous worry and angst; these are faces that express their owners’ feelings with such bareness and clarity, that reveal that they’re in pain, and frustrated and pissed off with their lot even though this might not be the very first admission at the next dinner party. These faces bear the very same version of distaste as yours; these are your people, your predicament. People living the life they’re supposed to. They don’t care that your nerves are frayed from the inescapable low-level fractiousness of the workday since they’ve been subjected to exactly the same treatment; slowly used up again without time to rejuvenate. Not real torment with real cause for complaint. Complaint; the ultimate purpose of which is to achieve some resolution, where the human psyche demands empathy and a pliant shoulder to cry on. There’s no resolution here. It’s long been and gone. No; these are life’s petty tribulations, the knocks you’re meant to bear and relish, to evolve from; or at least pretend to. On this day like all others, you’ve been jostled, cajoled, faintly exploited, yet to acknowledge these waves of resentment is tantamount to failure, so you take it all on the chin with a suitably-resigned adult stoicism. You look directly and penetratingly into your interlocutor’s eyes as they say things you don’t want to hear; you listen to every word, absorb every non-verbal nuance, you feel your body silently heave as you stand as stiffly as you can, drawing in breath in a monumental effort to keep your attention from waning. Your stance says: ‘I am part of this, for better or for worse’, and you sincerely hope they buy it. All these machinations to which you’re party; because if for one single moment you duck out and lose concentration, you’ll lose the thread and be side-lined, and you know that there’s plenty of competition for these sorry jobs that people still hanker after.
You’ve done nothing obvious to deserve your fate but you have no escape. You’re just living your life, doing your job, providing for your children, as you often say to your fatigued wife whose eyes grow more tired and withdrawn by the day. Once she was pretty; only because you remember that one time when you hadn’t seen her for a week and you picked her up from Heathrow and you were surprised at the dissonance between your mental image and how she actually looked. Your job itself, neither dull nor interesting, it even confers moments you don’t deny to enjoy, yet it’s just something you do and must continue to do, something you didn’t really choose, something you wish you didn’t have to do as it’s not what you want to do. You know this with absolute clarity from the very depth of your soul. But you’re not sure what you would do if you had the paradise of free choice. You wouldn’t want to idle on a Polynesian atoll, nor are you the competent golfer with an epidermis prone to reptilian furrows; you yearn for some engulfing wave of fulfilment, such that you feel when you get hold of the barbecue tongs in early Summer. A nurturing, expansive feeling of indispensability. Isn’t that the presiding feeling of workmen and plumbers? When did you last erect a fence, install a boiler, plumb in a washing machine, render a wall, or even programme a computer? Why hadn’t your father taken you in hand and shown you the productive masculine way? Perhaps he had, but you resisted and carried on playing on your Spectrum instead. To feel useful and worthy, so at the end of it you’ve got something to show for your efforts. To get your hands dirty and plough like Levin, consuming huge welters of energy and exhausting yourself to the point of collapse. You want the sweat to pour down in implausible streams from your temples, your pulse clapping like a sub-woofer, vomiting up bile, guts, soul, disgorging all the impacted pain from all those years; you want it out, so that you’re just a vessel, a neat and tidy receptacle of love and goodness.
When you’re left to your own devices for just a few moments, you have bundles of energy, this goodness and enthusiasm aching to get out, aching to just be what it is, but it doesn’t have an outlet and simply burns up and dies. Once in a while you do something, with people, and it reminds you of that sheer authentic joy of your childhood. A joy that you long relinquished without the slightest struggle. This is the joy that we presume to be reserved for our younger years and to have vanished three years out of university. Because responsibility means pure shit and hassle and that’s no fun. Like one of your good dreams where the recognition of the joy only dawns on waking up as you juxtapose the dream images against the cold filter of reality. As you flounder in bed, your mind replays snippets in the manner of the summary montage which precedes all but Episode One of any self-aggrandised US-cop-drama-serial. Your dream puts you amongst those boys in school you admired, you’re right in the bosom, conversing, jostling, freely contributing. No sense that you’re an interloper. You walk mingle and connect with them, inextricably linked, as part of the group, undoubtedly wanted liked and accepted. Almost coveted as the most valued member. Nothing is extraneous. There is no thought that you might have forgotten something or not done something right or that you should have done this, that or the other. There is no neurosis. All that the world can provide is there, your family, friends, nothing necessarily needs to be said and you feel calm, loved, and energised.
And you never sleep properly, as you tell people infrequently, fully knowing that they’re not remotely interested. Actually they’re not evening listening and you wonder when you’re telling them whether there is some unspoken rule which forbids the mention of the widespread affliction of insomnia. If others suffer equally, what gives you the right to complain? No matter what you do, you can’t get a good night’s sleep, you’re not quite sure why, you can be in bed by as early as 22:30 with your book, primed for it, but you just can’t make it through the night. The shadow of an ant across your back could wake you up and your wife’s tossing and turning always does. As you peer over into the blurry luminescence of your alarm clock display, 15:21, you relinquish all possibility of feeling refreshed in the morning and now the pressure is off. You turn on your sidelight and pick up your book or your phone or your work phone, and flick through Twitter. Infrequently, you do sleep, awake refreshed and you baulk at the difference between an invigorated you and a somnolent one. The difference is monumental. You wonder how a benevolent god could have let you go on for so long as a cantankerous zombie. Never mind the holocaust, how about your own life ebbing away in a pitiful blur of lassitude? You suddenly aren’t ratty any more, you can feel the endorphins running through your system as they’re meant to, calming you, buoying you and this unusual blessed occurrence gives you a tint of hope that all is not lost to perennial sleeplessness.
Every day you have plans that come to nothing, every moment, you say to yourself, will outperform the next. But it never does. This is no empty promise, this is the inviolable magnetic force called hope. Hasn’t life run its course long enough for this cheap trick to stop deceiving you? But it still does. Without it, you flounder in bed, fighting the dull ache in your gut which doesn’t want to let you get up, the one you’ve persistently but reluctantly fought and overcome over the last thirty years... Perhaps, in all conventional senses of these terms and concepts, you’re growing emotionally, becoming responsible, helping people, developing a sense of community spirit. Perhaps you view it all with a sort of sense of the absurd, you don’t take it seriously, and you allow things to wash over you. But it’s all just notional and sends you round in circles, because hope still reigns supreme and you’ve not progressed one inch. Your core is still rotten and you know it; the truth is always there. This is the prevailing sign, that despite everything, you never really grow up, you never come to terms with death. Until you’re ready to accept your own death as an absolute personal certainty, something that will befall you very shortly, you cannot be truly grateful for the life you have and you will continue to idle. Sometimes the gibes, the petty wrongdoings, the widespread confiscation of any love whatsoever get you down, sometimes you hear people disparaging you in no uncertain terms -- you crept back in the house and they didn’t know you were there -- and yet you bear it stoically for so many months, you take nothing personally. But then something more innocuous happens, something unforeseen, and it hurts you more and you slide into a depression which no one, including you, really notices or cares about. Some profess to care about you, but they don’t make that call, and you think all is lost, but then you just carry on. Why? Who knows why? What’s the alternative? Still, no one’s really interested, alerted to you, you’re still in the background, blurred like a pixel on a screen, and the same feelings of loneliness and persistent lack of fulfilment haunt you. And the thought comes round again with even greater alacrity that if anyone is going to change any of this shit, it’s going to have to be you.
Thank you very much for the opportunity to come and help out in the centre last week, but I’m regretfully going to have to inform you that I won’t be coming later this morning.
I have thought about it carefully. I suppose the normal thing do to would be to pretend that I’m ill and then just let the whole thing die down and never turn up again, so that we could put it all to bed.
But, whether this is big or magnanimous of me, I don’t know, but I just don’t want to lie to you. Well it’s not really for your benefit, more for mine. I just feel an impulse to tell the truth; the suggestion that I could tell some simpering and obvious lie would just eat away at me. It’s happened so many times in the past when I called up at 8:45 and left a cagey message on my secretary’s answerphone appraising her of my bad stomach and gingerly affirming that I would try to make it in later but would let her know how I was feeling. It was always followed up by an email at about midday. Always made sure to get in the word ‘feeling’, so as to appeal in the most offhand way to a basic sense of humanism. On reflection, I think I always spoke about my stomach as this took up the least amount of mental strain to stray from the previous falsehood. Somehow I thought I should just be consistent with last time which was carefully planned to be no less than at least 2 months ago so as to defray any suspicion that I was a repeat offender. I probably only took three bogus days off, but each of these was beset with torment and guilt. Of course I saw that no one was really bothered/worried/interested in whether I was coming into work that Tuesday or whether I was ill 5 weeks ago or if I came into work for the rest of the week or died or morphed into a frog. I laboured heavily under this mild pall of paranoia for too long that rendered those telephone calls so fraught. I so longed to tell the truth. I so longed to say that I don’t want to come into work so I’m not going to. I would add that she could and should pass that on to anyone who seemed interested. I wanted it made clear that I wasn’t ill or suffering from depression or hadn’t just broken up with my girl or boy friend, or wasn’t still in Tallinn on Tony’s stag-do, ( I hated that stag-do like all the others) no I wanted people to know that I dreaded coming in today even more than ever. Pure sorrow seemed to emanate from my shoulders as I tried to shift my torso from the bed, a heavy and persistent wretchedness enveloped my heart, laced with the persistent self-criticism that if I didn’t like what I was doing, I should just pluck up the courage and quit.
I want to escape from the clutches of that fear of upsetting everyone. I mean what’s so bad if I just tell you that I’m not coming because I don’t want to? Because I’m deeply repulsed by the idea of coming and would only force myself to come in to do you a favour. But I’m no saint, and I don’t believe in saintly acts of altruism. If any good can come out of me, it must be because it’s something that developed from some convoluted will of mine to be there. I don’t know how that will got to be where it is, but I do know what it is, and I can’t and don’t want to hide it from you. I’m not ill at all, as far as I know, although I did have another troubled night’s sleep. My seven-month-old daughter keeps waking us up at night, and once I’m woken up, I tend to have fitful periods of sleep that don’t seem to have much reconstitutive effect. No, I’m not ill, The truth is, that when I promised to turn up last week just before I left, (just before my soul was liberated) I was doing it out of duty; I thought I must finish what I’ve started. But I’ve realised that committing to something out of a sense of obligation is never a good thing, because all throughout this week I have been mildly tormented by the thought of having to return to the centre.
I want to let you know that I found the place ov