When I wake up, the first thing I see is my skylight. I throw it open and let a ice blue winter sky fill my eyes. Perched as I am on the narrow, low shelf of my mezzanine bedroom, my nose almost touches the glass. I can see the faint remains of messages and fingertrails inscribed in condensation past, now just scars. I should clean the window really. But I don’t have the heart to destroy them.
The bulk of my cottage consists of one tall, gabled room. Anywhere that there is wall space I have pictures, paintings and cuttings. It is essential for me to have visual clutter. I need this noise in the silence. Today I have no plans, nothing that I urgently need to do. So I make it my mission to seek out nothing, to be as unproductive as possible.
On my way out, I wrap a scarf tightly around my neck and run my fingers through my messy bedhead. It’ll do. I put on my long leather coat, propping the collar high to shield from the wind. I get a lot of stares when I march around in this. People compare me to a caped vampire. But, at the blossoming age of 32, I’m used to stares. In my old hometown every day would be punctuated by stares and by abuse, either muttered in passing or yelled from speeding cars; so many Lads Out For Bantz hanging out of the window to shout at difference.
I head to my favourite cafe. The people who serve here all know me, even though I barely speak to them – not out of distain but an awkward shyness towards their generous friendliness. I’m too British for affection. They ask me if I want my usual and I temporarily forget what my usual is. When I tell them this they laugh and remind me. I sit at my usual spot, perched on a stool in front of a long bar that faces out over the huge windows overlooking the street. I like people watching and often glance up from my book. In the background, soft jazz hums from the speakers over the quiet chatter of people wrapped up in big coats sipping big coffees.
Two people sit next to me and keep glancing over, presumably towards my book. I’m miles away so I don’t hear what they talk about but I meet them later on in town and we share wide-eyed silent looks of unexpected recognition.
I finish my breakfast and my second cup of tea because my neck is still stiff, hnuched as I am whilst reading. The other morning I woke up to find that I couldn’t move most of my right side from my neck, down my shoulders and my right arm. I pay for everything and throw a tip in the jar.
Whitby is a small village, piled up on the edges of a deep valley facing out to sea. From a distance, all the houses appear to be colliding into each other in a mass scrum like the crowd at a gig or Oxford Street on Christmas Eve. It is always pretty, but today under this clear sky with a bright sun low on the horizon it excels itself. Shadows hang and pose from gables and balconys, or dance around the feet of the people who walk around, alongside and with me. The tide is out and the sea is unusually becalmed, leaving behind a trickle in the middle of the harbour. The streets and buildings haven’t changed much in the past five hundred years or so. Neither has the vast hulk of the Abbey which watches over the settlement, partially obscured by another church but always peeking over its shoulder to make sure no mischief is knowingly committed.
I walk the back streets, the quiet streets and the narrow ones too. I’m thinking about lots of things. I’m admiring the sun and the buildings and wishing I had my camera with me. I’m thinking about work next week and how horrible it is going to be. I’m thinking… about writing. The scraps of a story here. A vague sentence or beginning there. With a deep rumble, fragments of stone from the eroding cliff bounced past their heads and they smiled into each others hidden fear. I think about my photos. I take myself away to other places and suddenly I’m walking a lonely stretch of beach, watching a red hot sun plunge deep into the silhouetted steel works. I’m walking in Covent Garden towards the Seven Dials, contemplating my next path and looking out for a shop with a smile and a mess of curls. I’m walking past five innocuous bumps in the ground and walking the lip of a wind-blasted amphitheatre.
This gets me onto thinking about Cat, whom I have been reminded of last night. Cat was my first love and a couple of times this year I’ve found myself wanting to know how she is doing – or more accurately – wanting to know that she is doing well for herself. I know, both deep down and shallow down, that this desire is not born from any foolhardy wish to somehow reignite a candle that burnt out over fifteen years ago. I just want to be sure that people I once cared about are okay. I want to remain invisible, but I want to know.
I’ve been reminded of Cat after seeing an old acquaintance pop up on Twitter. Invisibly, I go through his friends list and the old names leap back into my mind. I’m pleased to see that most are doing well, and yet saddened to see that most are still in the same place. Still keeping in the same groups. The bastards and the bullies, the wankers and the dropouts now all responsible adults with families, posing in smart suits. Change is healthy. One girl – or, should I say, woman but when I knew her she was a girl – was always disrupting English lessons. I am delighed to read that she is now an award winning author and screenwriter. But I can never meet these people again.
I make my way, slowly, to a pub overlooking the harbour. Before going in, I stop off at the indoor underground market and enjoy the smell of boiled sweets, thumbing through the vinyl that I cannot afford. There’s a guitar shop here but I don’t go in – their guitars are cheap and badly cared for. When I emerge again blinking into the light, the sun has gone down behind the building and my breath mists my eyebrows.
In the pub, I sit for a few hours with my book, still trying to stave off the shooting pains that run from below my right ear down to my shoulder blade. I shift a lot in my seat, and probably look like a man who is trying not to scratch his arse or someone who is trying to fight a violent tic that I can feel brewing in my diaphragm. Some people talk to me but I’m miles away, nose deep in the pages, and I am no doubt rude in their eyes. I eventually leave with a smile not returned.
I walk back to my house, weaving around the crowds that are beginning to encroach as Spring approaches. Across the bridge, I think I see someone I recognise but it would be a geographical impossibility and the moment is gone in an instant. I walk home briskly, bursting for a piss and for a sniff of sanctuary. The moment I unlock my front door I get a welcoming blast of incense. The boiler growls and rumbles, and my new neighbours slam their door and skip down the street laughing at their private jokes.
I’ll do the housework whilst dancing in my socks. I’ll cook – pasta with sauce, chopped chorizo, olive oil and italian herbs. I’ll pour myself a drink – Zubrowka and chilled apple juice. And now I sit, the day nearly finished, typing these words.
Just another soul, ambling through another day. One thousand five hundred ninety nine words.
I’m reflecting now on that ice sky. I’m wishing that I didn’t have work tomorrow. My body and mind are crying out for a punishing moors walk – twenty to thirty miles of disused tracks, abandoned farms and forehead-scrunching map reading. To see buzzards and rivers, smell pine forests and cower from livestock. I hope Cat is okay like the rest. I’m trying not to think about other things, so I won’t type them here.
One more glass of potent apple juice to make the eyelids heavy and then sliding into clean, white sheets with a book on my knees. Tomorrow, I’ll look up at my skylight again and I’ll try not to think and I’ll still not clean it. I’ll walk the hotel corridors, but I won’t be walking the corridors; I’ll be walking through York or along Portobello Road, sniffing the antiques and raising eyebrows at the Imperial detritus. I’ll go outside to my car but I won’t be walking to my car, I’ll be feeling the frosty pinch whilst walking around the outside of a vast, silent quarry. I’ll look into the eyes of a guest, and even as I listen to their words I’ll be remembering the songs, arm in arm, when we knew we were standing on the lip of a cliff and it was too late to go back now.
These are all the things this man does. Every day, walking in places where he no longer is.