I know nothing. The sounds of the city. You find yourself in someone else’s house and you live their lives (it’s a happy life). In the evening there’s a mushroom risotto, in the morning you water their orchids, top up the humidifier, open some windows and close them when it rains. In the twilight: an expansive skyline view and a balcony from which to contemplate. A widescreen TV you can’t operate and a machine that produces the smoothest of coffees. Different chairs to sit on. An odd set of keys.
‘What are you up to these days?’ I meet Ben at a pub round the corner with high ceilings and low lighting.
‘I professionally live other people’s lives.’
‘Is that a job?’
‘Yes, and it’s full-time.’ I sup my overpriced beer and he gives me a grin. I do manage to retain an odd existence don’t I?
Around the converted warehouse I tread carefully, purposefully, like a fraud. You see an insight in to another reality – momentarily - I think I could exist like this but it’s just a phase. I am housesitting and in some ways housebound. Quiet. Nice lines. Soft furnishings, smooth surfaces, plumped up cushions, and a crumbless floor with a hardwood polish shine. A fraud? What would a beggar do if placed in a palace; is there a despondent desire to go back to the familiar streets and the contemptuous faces of a thousand ignoring strangers? I feel kept. Cat. House-trained and well-groomed. Plant. Delicately perched on a windowsill turned to the sunlight.
There is a day or two when I go out. Knowing nothing, again. I wear an oversized denim jacket that makes for a good briefcase, in the pockets I carry odd keys some paper and pen. Not even a phone these days. Unconventional offices loom on either side of the cobbled street, restored gas lamps now with bulbs that look like fake flames hang on wrought-iron bars. The pubs are debonair but weighted down by authentic names like The Woolhouse; the people inside them eat salmon. One gentleman has a fork lifted to his mouth but forgets the fork to thumb a screen laid flatly on his tabletop, the cress falls. And a youthful woman swivels round in her chair and takes flight from the scene. I follow.
‘That damn elevator’ she thinks, ‘what happened happened but that fucking elevator.’
Now this woman, let’s call her Jane, once in her life got stuck in an elevator. Her thoughts at the time went like this:
‘This sodding damn elevator. The buttons have all lit up, the emergency alarm’s stopped ringing and I am facing a four-walled metal box in stasis. Urgh! Today is not the day to become physically stuck as well as mentally. I woke up in a haze and walked what felt like miles for an unusual bus. I shouldn’t have slept with Si. I shouldn’t have slept with Si. Mum’s keeping secrets from me and I had a go at her like a teenager throwing a tantrum. Why won’t she tell me? I’m only looking out for her, why doesn’t she get it? She’s vulnerable. I feel unwashed simply because I am. And I left my exposing political diarist draft open on my computer screen when I should have been updating the latest spreadsheets. Fuck it. Wank it.’
You see Jane is an intelligent, articulate, driven woman working in the back rooms of politics when we all know she should be heading the projects and meeting the councils. Instead there is a an abhorrent boarding school mentality that pervades the offices, and a wink and a nudge in the right direction can set you up in the right partnerships. But with her colloquialisms and overtly PR-manner these hounds weren’t taking her seriously, not even as a threat, little did they know every time they quaffed and got drunk and a morsel fell out she would note it down to use as credible backing for her own career progression. She had been waiting for the right time to unleash this document either to the press or the publishers, whichever would get her the highest public profile, enough to enter politics on her own two feet. But now the elevator hampered her quiet rage by making her be still at a time when she wasn’t quite sure of herself.
‘I’ve been staring at this door now for… I don’t know, and placing my forehead on the cooling steel panels I just want to be… hugged and swallowed whole. God I want to escape if only I could be bothered.’
If a career-life crisis for a woman had to look like something this would be it. A desperate high-achiever on her way to something important (but it’s nothing really, some appointment, some dinner, some class) and on the way she gets stuck in a machine.
‘But it’s weird, being stuck doesn’t feel as bad as being not stuck’, Jane silently realises that when life in comparison to being imprisoned in a windowless metal chamber is about the same then you have to let out in a hollow whisper, ‘so what’s the point?’
I left Jane there on the pavement still cursing the elevator inside her own head as she flicked through the endless messages being sent to her i-phone.
People used to live a much more isolated life. That’s what I thought when I was brewing some tea in this other person’s house. I see pictures of her as a child, one in a silver frame, which catches my eye. Dressed in a pinafore and bunches smiling awkwardly and honestly at the camera. Over there is a picture of the couple’s life adventures, skiing. An unmade bed lies behind that closed bedroom door. The cleaner comes on Fridays. Dry washing is hanging on a clothes-horse. Untouchable lives.
There was a boy, a self-made man that I had the displeasure of meeting through a girl friend of mine who introduced me to him as a boyfriend. His name was Joe. I said I had no opinions on the matter of suitability merely that as long as she was happy I didn’t mind whom she chose to take to bed.
‘You really don’t have anything to say about him?’ After placing my mug of tea on the tabletop and biding my time to think of what to say I said,
‘He seems nice.’
The problem was I knew exactly what type of mid to late twenties male Joe was. He’d filled his life with so much air that he was floating above everyone else afraid of any pin-prick that might burst his balloon. The fall would make a loud thud! though completely recoverable and all he needed was someone to prick him not blow him some more.
‘I just think he’s this creative soul but stuck in this high-pressured lifestyle. You know he looks after brands like Adidas and Chanel.’ I already knew my girl friend liked him far too much to convince her otherwise.
Joe worked with bolshie lads trading accounts and girls, stories of their conquests in sport, bedroom or boardroom, laughing so loudly together in groups to mask their receding hairlines and incoming paunches. Nicely built sure, with good teeth and height, which is partly why he got far in the world of supercilious wristwatches. But he relied on his jokes a bit too much, worked late but never thought about it a bit too often, got drunk until he couldn’t remember a few too many weekends until one innocuous afternoon in his office-with-a-view he realises he is bored of life. The constant checking of messages on all his devices, the chasing-up and fobbing-off of clients, the stream of new faces that he never sees again, the numbers of girls he’s forgotten the sight of even though they were naked. Making plans for the weekend on a Tuesday, the girlfriend asking you about parents’ dinner next Saturday, the credit-card bill that hasn’t been paid off on that credit-card. Council tax. It’s not what he wants to be thinking about in his spare time, he knows it, but he doesn't know what to think.
‘Well, Joe is taking me to The Secret Garden Party and now that we’re official I want to take him down to meet my parents in Devon.’
‘That sounds lovely.’ I say with a nod and no trace of apprehension. Perhaps I should have flagged it - but nobody likes a smart-arse especially in a friend as it can be misconstrued as bitterness or even worse jealousy. I wasn’t about to get involved.
‘But I’ll spend Christmas at his this year.’
I’d like to say they called it quits and Joe got braver. But he didn’t. He was a dedicated project to her and in about a year they would be married and later they’d have a son named David. Overlooking his infidelities brought on by nothing less than an early mid-life crisis he failed at ever being himself. The fear of being alone and left to his own thoughts deterred him from leaving, and what’s worse than having to spend for the first time in your life, time by yourself, without the blinking devices and the steel-coated balloon to realise one is boring. Nothing.
And so I think yes people used to live a much more isolated life. What’s admirable is that they had to get on with it. In a moment of loneliness or uncertainty they would have to go for a walk, make a cup of tea, visit a friend’s house. No faithful stream of chatter to dive in to via the digital gods. Less chatter but the serenity of less clutter. Maybe people could make up their own minds and not have to get married or seek another employer or look for anonymous endorsements about their own image. Our lives are no better or worse (it’s a happy life) just different.