As the Beast from the East 2.0 raged outside the window on Tuesday night I sat on the sofa and watched a film about two people having all the memories of their past relationship erased. A relationship that began by chance on a train rolling through Long Island on a similarly freezing morning of winter.
The first line of the film goes:
Random thoughts for Valentine’s Day 2004. Today is a holiday invented by greeting card companies to make people feel like crap.
I sent myself a card on Thursday.
I drew a big question mark and shaded it in with gold pen and wondered if it would come in time. I could open it on the day, I thought, as I dip a soldier into my egg while ignoring the empty half of the double eggcup on the table in front of me. Right now it’s Friday, and as I write the card I sent myself will be winding its way through the postal system, on its way back to me.
When I was alone once upon a time I grew to be afraid of Sundays. Something happened on an Easter Sunday a few years back that left its mark on me, a sort of dark presence in my mind serving as a reminder to fear loneliness and keep a watch out for it. If weekends were a time to spend together with someone doing nothing very much, I figured, Sundays spent alone were the saddest days of all.
Later, in the hangover of an especially big fight when I reckoned the relationship must be doomed, the memory of that Sunday would rear its head and I would think… no, anything but that. It haunted me, that memory, like a restless spirit in a sealed-off wing of my mind. I read on MedicineNet that loneliness was processed in the same part of the brain as physical pain, and wondered if anyone had ever got PTSD from spending, against their best efforts, a Sunday on their own.
But I can count on one hand how many times I’ve felt that type of loneliness. I think I must be very lucky. And sat here in front of my egg, on the one day in the calendar made to make single people feel like shit, that has chosen to fall on, of all days, a Sunday, I’m doing alright I tell you.
A mate of mine once told me how his flatmate, on the five-minute walk from the tube back to the flat, would call up for a chat, and my mate would put the phone down on him. I heard this story and thought how I was so unlike this it almost made me envious. The three times a year I answered my phone I’d be greeted by stunned silence on the other end of the line. I was the uncontactable. I never initiated, never asked for help, I loved to head out into the city on my bike with no real plan, to cruise and amble and overdose on artisan coffee. Like a badge of honour, I thought my self-sufficiency my greatest virtue.
But deep down I just wanted to be found. I fantasised about someone coming round the corner and spying me locked into a staring contest with a Georgian façade, or walking past me on a bench in a walled garden sipping a cortado. What a cool guy, so solitary and mysterious. But it never worked out that way. You’re like that Instagram saying, someone told me once. What saying, I’m not even on Instagram. The saying that goes the only thing more attention-seeking than being on instagram is… She waited. Not being on instagr-… Bingo.
There is a strange maths to feeling alone.
I’ve cycled the span of continents for months on end and never felt alone. And been in a room with ten close friends and felt isolated. I’ve shared beds with people and felt more alone than ever, at times I probably even felt alone with her. When I was honest and felt heard, when I said the things that were in my head and felt listened to, my sense of isolation would depart. But anything short of that didn’t feel like connection, and being in company but not connected seemed like a pretty bad combination.
I’ve stared out at a wood under the influence of an ancient Amazonian medicine and been more sure than I can put in words about the interconnectivity of all things, before me the ferns and grasses and trees in the dark were glowing and ebbing and their energy and mine were touching. And when I think of that wood even now I don’t see a memory of a hallucination, I see something like proof we might have lost a way of seeing.
But yes loneliness.
That Sunday, the Easter one, the ghostly one. Newly on my own, consciously-uncoupled, self-partnered, whatever you want to call it, I feared the re-emergence of that shadow. With all that was going on in the world in this strangest of years, human separation was real and everyone was feeling it. I came close to hugging my Albanian plumber the other day, a man who wanted children more than anything in the world, who had taught his nephews and nieces how to walk and how to speak. But they are lies, he said. They are not mine. A man without children is like a tree without branches, he went on, reaching for a spanner.
One Sunday of bitter cold in the middle of January, the feeling began to rear its head and I got scared. And in the uncanny way she has, some instinct in her that has saved my ass a few times when I most needed it, leaving her food-poisoned husband in bed, armed with two kids and the spirit of a one man army, Chloe honked outside the window and we drove to Highgate cemetery. As Kit hunted for ghosts in the shadows behind the big grave stones and Nell’s little legs gave chase I saw an inscription by the entrance to a catacomb and realised how things were endlessly repeating themselves, that all things had been and were and would continue to be. To decompose to reconstruct.
And so the weeks of lockdown in the unreality of 2021 stretched out, seeming themselves to endlessly repeat, and spring lay in hiding somewhere around the next corner. Up at my desk I spent most of my days alone, trying to write and edit and write again, with arms outstretched to claw back the confidence in me that kept wishing to float away. Reading things, walking to the shops, not too much YouTube, not feeling lonely, not really, not like I’d feared.
Through the wall one morning animated voices arguing grew louder and I remembered how lockdown was driving couples insane and thought of Papa’s line of Kafka’s I’d searched in vain for that went something like, given how strange and complex we all are it is a wonder we have the courage to reach out and touch each other with the tips of our fingers. One day when the stars have disappeared we might miss having someone to argue with.
I wasn’t lonely. But I did feel alone, in my head. I missed her presence, her quiet grace and unfailing interest in the things I had to say. Someone there to listen to your show and tell, and show and tell their stuff back to you. A new tune, some factoid, the branches silhouetted in the changing dawn beside St John’s. It is a strange thing being cast out into the world again alone, you realise how their presence is a veil that cloaks your world, and when it goes there is a sucking out of air, an atmospheric shift like the sudden change in the weather before rain.
Relearning how to be alone could be nothing but a good thing I thought. All the cool stuff I found out about the world happened mostly when I was alone. Like the stencil on the wall by the canal said, the quieter you are the more you can hear, and the memories and realisations, the piecing together of things in order to make sense of them, came to me almost always when I was quiet. I’d got this far. As the light of the afternoon dimmed outside the window I reached over to turn on the desk lamp and saw again as usual, the answers were all around me.
In On Solitude Montaigne spoke of keeping ‘a room at the back of the shop to establish our principal solitude’, to get used to nothing but ourselves so when the people and things we loved were taken from us it was not a new experience to be without them. The soul can turn in on herself, he said, she can keep herself company. Thinking about it hard, I thought before that I feared loneliness, but I realised what I feared was fear itself. And this was a non-starter, a fairytale, if it hadn’t happened then it didn’t exist. I devised to do my best to make other people feel less lonely.
On Saturday a card came for me. I recognised the writing on the envelope, it was familiar. Someone sent me a Valentine after all, I smiled. I decided not to open it until the big day and to make a ceremony of it, and early Sunday morning, cracking into the egg I took the envelope and tore it open. Written in gold lettering were the words, hey buddy. And below it an enormous question mark coloured in gold pen. I wondered who it could be.
Royal Mail had made a special Valentine’s stamp to mark the day with a romantic proposal. I like you. Do you like me? The Beast from the East 2.0 was upping sticks at last and heading home across the continent, and outside the window the sky was cranky and muted. I looked at the card and the big gold question mark and wondered might lie in store for me today, this Sunday of all days.