The other 4 o’ clock

I’ve been feeling the heat a bit lately.  Not just in a literal sense, although you already know that hot weather is not on my list of most favourite things.  I also have some THINGS THAT MUST BE DONE, and I haven’t done them.  I’ve gone into shut-down, hibernate mode as far as real life is concerned.  My family have started sending friendly-but-starting-to-get-a-bit-worried-now emails.*  But this doesn’t, of course, mean that the stress caused by THE THINGS THAT MUST BE DONE has gone away.  Instead, it’s hanging around and getting stronger, as it will continue to do, until I get off my fat arse and actually do THE THINGS THAT MUST BE DONE.  Eeep.

Anyway, I’ve been feeling hemmed in, and like there’s no escape.  Humid weather gets called ‘close’ sometimes, and it hasn’t been humid these last few days, but it’s still felt close to me.  The air has felt like a hot shroud clasping my skin, and labouring my breath.**  It hasn’t been helped that every time I’ve gone out, there have been people around.  I have a habit of clucking quietly to myself when I see the Teenage Misanthrope engage in some of his more misanthropic musings, but truth be told, I’m not that big a fan of people, either.  I like them well enough in the abstract, but actual close-up, real-life, staring-at-me-oddly, smelling-of-armpits people I’m not so keen on.

I feel like I can never be myself, except when I am unobserved, and I can never be unobserved when I have any sense that there is anyone anywhere around.***  So, my usual habit of escaping out to one of the parks near here hasn’t worked.  It’s usually reasonably quiet – maybe the odd dog walker and jogger – but it’s been mobbed of late.  People everywhere, and not people keeping quiet, but people being noisy.  People with those fucking mobile phones that can be set to play back (always crappy) music through tinny speakers – I LIKED the walkman/ iPod generations, and their headphones, goddamn it.  Kids playing in the stream, and screaming and splashing, and shouting and laughing.  I approve of kids playing outdoors, in abstract – I did a fair amount of river-splashing myself, truth be told, though not much shouting and screaming – but not of the fact that they can be heard from miles away, so that every corner of the park is full of the sound of people, and there is no escape.

I feel like I am being driven into the darkness, both by the heat – it’s more comfortable going for a walk once the sun has set – and the constant people.  But even in the dusk there are people, and people reduced to the status of shadows, to unknowable threats lurching through the dark.

So, I thought to myself, ‘Well, what about the dawn?’  I am really not a morning person, so it was quite a surprise when I found myself going to bed on Saturday night having set my alarm for 3-45.  As in 3-45 a.m.  It seemed like a good idea at the time.

I didn’t actually go to bed until 1-30, and I didn’t get to sleep till about 2-30, so it was more of a nap than a sleep, but I still found I was awake before my alarm went off.  I was actually feeling excited, probably because I’d only ever got up at this sort of time was when I was going on holiday.  I struggled into my clothes, and left the flat, trying my best to be quiet so as to not wake my neighbours, although that didn’t really work, given that the electronic lock on the outer door of the block seals itself with a thud louder than the crack of doom.

I was surprised by how many people there were around.  One of the caretakers was mopping out the floor in the next door block, and looked up, slightly surprised to see someone going out at this time of day.  Because that was the thing that occurred to me as soon as I was out and walking – that I shouldn’t be surprised to see people coming home.  I’ve quite often seen dawn on a Sunday morning, but with the qualification that it was at the end of a night out.

There seemed to be endless taxis on the road.  I walked past a flat where the windows were open, and the sound of music and the smell of hash were drifting down to the ground, several storeys below.  I walked past another flat where the windows were shut, but the lights were on, and the shouting could be heard – ‘And what the fuck do you expect, bitch?’  I walked on, past the sound of a baby crying, and realised that I wasn’t going to find my peace and isolation here.  I live in a major city, in the middle of a ‘high-density housing area’, as the planners call it, and there really are people all around me.  But I thought I would press on, because in the park it would be different.  As it was, there were no other pedestrians around, and, sure enough, as left behind my blocks of flats, the roads got quieter and quieter.

There is a high stone wall around the park, and the road curves as soon as you are through the wall, cutting off the city outside, and I felt like I was in a separate space.  The trees formed a tunnel overhead – normally when I walk this way it’s a shady, sun-flecked tunnel, but this time it was dark, with light creeping through from above.  The stream seemed as though it was hardly flowing, and there were wisps of mist rising off the surface.  Above, in the branches, the birds were starting to sing.  This was more like it, I thought.

I cut along a path that led through trees, heading uphill.  I was on my own here, but it didn’t feel like I was.  I heard not only the sound of my own footsteps, but the sound of softer ones following me, almost but not quite in step.  I stopped walking, and the footsteps stopped.  I looked around and there was no-one, but when I started walking, the following footsteps started too.  This isn’t a major freak-out for me.  I know it’s one of the ways my mind likes to amuse itself, and once I’ve decided that there’s no one actually around, I push it to the back of my mind and carry on.  Still, it’s hard to feel alone when you carry your own stalker around with you, inside your head.

I headed up hill, with the light rising around me, and the sound of the birds singing.  I saw a pair of birds of a type I’ve never seen before – about the size of a pigeon, but thinner, and with dappled beige and white feathers – hopping along the ground, then turning to watch me out of sight with their beady eyes.  I crossed one of the little park roads, and started to worry about random things.  What if someone had been murdered in the park?  What if the police found me walking around, with no explanation for why I was there except ‘I felt like a walk’?  I tried to push that to the back of my mind, too, but the back of my mind was starting to feel pretty crowded.

I made it to the shelter at the top of the hill, and sat down on one of the benches inside.  Someone had carried a pot of white paint all the way up here, to write the word ‘ASTRA’ vertically on one of the poles supporting the roof in thick, neat letters.  There was a drawing of a star above the word.  Quite a surprise to see Latin graffiti here, all things considered.

I sat on the bench, and hoped that peace and stillness would somehow soak into me.  I sat with my back to a bank of trees, and looked down and out, over a wide, green lawn.  I tried to stop myself from checking over my shoulder for the things/people/things that might be hiding among the dark trees.  I looked out of the front of my mind, and tried to ignore the things I had squeezed into the dark back there.  I tried to ignore everything that was behind me, and concentrate on what was in front of me.

I saw a wind turbine on a far-away hill, glinting in the early sun as it turned lazily, even in the dawn stillness.  After a while, sitting quietly, I saw two young foxes scamper across the lawn, chasing each other, pretending to fight, running across the open space for the simple pleasure of running.  This is something you don’t see, except in the empty quietness, and I felt some of the specialness creeping into me.  This particular event – these foxes, playing now – was a thing I had seen, but that no-one else had.  But then the foxes ran out of sight, and I couldn’t see them any more.

The shelter seemed to be gradually filling up with small, biting insects.  I still have two matching red lumps at the base of each of my thumbs, from the insects that bit me.  The insects had attracted a single swallow, who dive-bombed the air outside the shelter.  Every time it flew past I ducked, afraid it would fly into my space.  Other birds were singing in the distance, but nearby were crows, shouting their harsh, grating croaks – the least peaceful bird sound there is.

When the crows shut up for a while, I could hear other things.  I heard the distinctive roar of a bus engine, as it lumbered along the road outside the park.  Further in the distance, I heard the sound of cars on the motorway.  I heard but did not see an aeroplane fly overhead, lost in the dawn haze.  In a way, it was interesting to hear these things – they were faraway sounds, carried a long distance in the stillness of the early-morning air.  But I had wanted peace and solitude, and a sense of being away from all humans, and the world was full of human sounds.

As I sat, the sun rose, and the air turned golden.  The mist started to glow, and the dew on the grass started to shine.  The streetlights along the park road blinked out.  This should have been a moment to treasure, the reason I had got up in the dark, and walked out in the early morning gloom.  But the rising sun was greeted by the sound of a siren, and the yelling of police dogs, locked in their kennels over at the edge of the park.

I gave up then – I would not find peace this way.  I would go home, and spend a day in front of the internet, zonked out with exhaustion and heat, listening to the kids down below my window playing football, making enemies, making friends, making enemies again.  I left the park by the quickest route, walking along the edge of one of the park roads, standing aside to let a builder’s van pass me.  One last time I looked up into the golden air, and saw two ducks, one behind the other.  They were flying southeast, into the teeth of the rising sun.



* – Don’t worry, I’ve replied to the emails, so they know I’m still alive.

** – Yes, yes I am saying this about the weather in the UK, in May/ June.  No, I have no idea what would happen to me if I was in – say – Alice Springs in the middle of the hot season, or even southern europe right now.  I suspect it wouldn’t be pretty.

** – This feeling is not unrelated to paranoia, I think, and the fact that I am having these feelings is probably something I should watch.  Oh joy.

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6 Responses to The other 4 o’ clock

  1. Lucy McGough says:

    That’s beautiful writing. I’m jealous.

  2. la says:

    There’s an episode of Jeeves and Wooster* where Bertie, weary of the hectic pace of Manhattan, escapes to the country for a well-deserved rest… only to find the countryside at night is the noisiest place on earth – hooting owls, croaking frogs, barking dogss etc.

    *have read most of the stories but don’t remember reading this one, just seeing it on TV

  3. Alex says:

    Well, I suppose if you were really desperate for quiet and solitude, you could always flee to a library. Either that or become a monk.
    I really know what you mean about the heat, though; it’s horrible. I’ve actually been to Arizona in summer, and that’s definitely not fun, but on the plus side they have air conditioning everywhere (without it, it’s too hot to think, which may go some way to explaining state politics). In any case, you’ve got my sympathy. Personally, I’m holding out hope that climate change turns Britain into Siberian-style tundra. I know it’s unlikely, but a man can dream.

  4. cellar_door says:

    Mr Door is regularly up at stupid o’clock in the morning, and hates it…he blames it on being old…good for you though for trying it (meant in a non-patronising way, of course). The lack of sleep beforehand may have contributed to the paranoia – obviously in conjunction with the mentalness ;o) – but it’s pretty impressive you managed to carry on regardless.

    I also have THINGS THAT MUST BE DONE and am avoiding until the last possible minute. I find once I get too many THINGS I completely stall and can’t do any of them. I prefer to have naps.

    Take care x

  5. No Other Medicine says:

    I find it’s easier to get peace and solitude around 5am to 6am. It’s too late for the clubbers and clean up brigade, and too early for everyone else. At most there might be a couple of dog walkers in the park and they’re too sleepy to manage anything other than a polite “hello”.
    Good luck with your THINGS THAT MUST BE DONE.

  6. aethelreadtheunread says:

    Thanks for all the comments.

    Lucy McGough – thank you, but you shouldn’t be jealous. In my wilder flights of fancy i sometimes dream of becoming a writer as good as you. :o)

    la – sounds like a very Woosterian thing to do… ;o) I can cope with nature sounds mostly, though, it’s the human ones i like a break from every now and again.

    Alex – well, i am a big fan of libraries, but they’re not usually all that silent. Plus one of the THINGS THAT MUST BE DONE involves going to a library, so they’re kind of off limits for now. I’m not sure i’d go all the way to Arctic tundra myself – i wouldn’t mind the cold, but the relentless whiteness and constant slipping over would get to be a bit of a drag. But a climate where the temperature never exceeds 19 degress, well, that would suit me down to the ground. :o)

    cellar_door – and everything you say is always taken in a non-patronising way, naturally. :o) Mr Door has my sympathy – i seem to be more inclined to go to bed in the early morning than wake up in it, so hopefully it’ll be a while before my own advancing years land me in the same situation.

    No Other Medicine – it did occur to me that Sunday morning was probably one of the worst mornings i could have chosen. I suspect dawn on a Tuesday or a Wednesday would be a lot quieter. Thanks for the good wishes. :o)

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