I see you, perching on your favourite spot, same time, almost on the dot, daily. I don’t know you but I’ve come to know your habits – the way you flick your hair back and scroll through your apps with a great deal of annoyance, how you look upwards when there’s no view to be seen, your stroking the house plants on the balcony. Seeing you makes me kind of sad, I think you incorporate the feeling I sometimes get when my friends cancel plans and I’m sat in my bed which has oat cake crumbs on it and it’s not quite raining outside but there’s that awful, invisible drizzle.
I think about you and your counterparts a lot. I think about whether we’ve all created these microcosms of social ineptitude for ourselves or whether we’ve been complaining about it for so long that they’ve decided to wash over us, just to prove a point. I think about you when I see someone with a single aubergine at the supermarket or when I listen to my neighbour sob on the phone, knowing a gentle knock will be seen as intrusion or rudeness. I think about you the way I think about the lyrical yous that we all seem to meet daily yet never in real life – in music, in poetry, in graffiti. You make my dreams come true. You make life worth living. It’s always been you. Ur the one. You ! You ? A you so many of us pursue and seem to have no clue about at the exact same time. The you that Leonard Cohen howls about in One of us cannot be wrong – you’d REALLY hate that song. He screams about unrequited love and heartbreak and THEM and it’s all leading to a final howl – it makes for painful listening and a dreadful earache if you’re unfortunate enough to have run out of Spotify skips.
I guess that, really, what scares me about you is the fact that Eleanor Oliphant was a bestseller for so long, and that there was a lady in North London who died in a flat and wasn’t discovered for years. They made a documentary about that, you know, but watching it might give me nightmares. Her TV was still running when they found her – that bit of information gave me the creeps. Eleanor Oliphant isn’t a very good book, but is mildly funny and it saddens me that so much of the country bought it. Maybe they could also not go into the office and have no one notice, or had no family, or had lived in the same house for years and with no company. Reading about Eleanor’s Fridays made me appreciate my own.
You incorporate everything that terrifies whoever moves to a big city for the first time, and maybe I’m wildly arrogant in making so many assumptions, yet I can’t help but feel you’d buy a single aubergine too (though you seem more like you’d be a pepper type). That you’d never bother texting giffgaff to add some credit to your phone because maybe you don’t really call many people. I think about those people that sit on the tube and stare ahead, not really sure what to make of their evenings, and you come to mind. When I get up really early to force myself to go for a run, I see you, in your spot. I wonder whether winter mornings make you feel alive like they do for me, or whether you’d rather not bother with seasonal cheeriness, it’s a load of rubbish.
I wonder whether you’re in a job you hate or one you’re about to leave or one that you’re already on leave from, and I wonder this because sometimes you’re home at 11am and other times you’re meandering by your window at 3pm. Maybe you’re self-employed. Maybe you, too, tutor dozens of unknown faces on your computer and invest that in extortionate City rent and parsnips.
Perhaps we’d be friends. Today someone laughed at me when I said I was a people person and I thought of you. You’d laugh bitterly, I know, you wouldn’t want to really take that kind of comment seriously – and I wonder if you’ve been hurt by people to the point that you’d rather be your own person. Has someone betrayed you? Have people simply proven themselves, time and time again, to be something you’re better off without? Most people would say you’re wrong, but I’d dare them to listen to you – scooch down by your spot and listen to your tales about cheating and wrongdoing and abandonment if you have any.
Occasionally I wonder whether you lead a secret life. Maybe you’ve got a really dangerous or glamorous existence – a sugar daddy, an oligarch who takes you to listen to jazz. A parade of lovers who are only in town occasionally. You’re someone who goes to Tate Lates and BBC Proms and Somerset House. You sit in cool basement bars and count notes surrounded by an entourage of employees who ship in illegal drugs from god knows where. But maybe you work in a care home and do night shifts. Maybe you drive trains or buses or Ubers or all three, and come home and eat cereal as the sun rises. Perhaps you’re just always in a bad mood whenever I see you, and you’re just a completely normal person whose sick days just so happen to overlap with the days I’m sat in my room. You might have a huge circle of friends and go on fun solo holidays and be engaged at the same time, you might do Parkruns and love to daydream about a bigger house because you want to grow cabbage in your own little garden.
But … I just…. I can’t see you with people and I can’t see you doing anything in anyone’s company, not even a pet. The idea of you boarding Easyjet flights alone, exploring Europe by yourself and sitting at restaurants with a book, somehow seems ludicrous. That’s my kind of solitude, one that isn’t really solitude at all, but an enjoyment of my own company. I think you’re like that Muriel Barbery character whose job it is to take in the post but secretly loves opera. She blasts it in her tiny cubby-hole, serenading herself away from the classism and general unpleasantness her building’s inhabitants throw her way. But I want people to be let in, to serenade themselves around the table and kick their shoes off. I would want you to join in.
We may well never exchange a word, let alone be friends. But this morning it was sunny, you were doing a little jig in front of what looked like porridge. I looked at you for long enough, and got a squinty grin in return. We might be chopping salad ingredients together next. I’ll lend you O’Hara’s Lunch Poems. Once you go to New York, it’ll make them even more fun. You’d love it there. You can be the type of alone that doesn’t hurt. Fellow hedgehogs sit in Washington Square Park all day long.
I wrote this after rereading The elegance of the hedgehog (L’elegance du herisson), still one of the best books about friendships and (yes, and!) loneliness that I’ve read to this day. It made me think about what it’s like to approach anonymity living somewhere chaotic and what it can mean to be alone. You might like it.