You may have noticed dear readers, that I haven’t written for a while. I’m trying to find my way back in, still. This is probably background to my WIP, because one of the things I’m trying to do is keep the exposition to a minimum — I want the world to be a fait accompli, understood and accepted as it is, without a lot of discussion as to how it got that way. And there’s far too much exposition here. Part of this is me trying to figure out my character, who she is, how she came to be. I’m finding her rather one-dimensional, I need to know that there’s more to her. So this is called “How to be alone for 10 years (without really noticing)”
And if you come and read, please leave a comment.
In my grade 12 yearbook, each student in the graduating class was asked to name his or her favourite saying. I wrote “le temps passe inexorablement.” It wasn’t anything close to my favourite saying, which was probably obscene and unpublishable, but it sounded erudite and grown-up and, above all, French, which to me epitomized erudition and adulthood. It was a line from a pop song I’d learned that summer, my own “ne regrette rien,” and to me it spoke of the futility of fighting time – no matter what I did to stop it, or to hurry it along, time would pass at exactly the rate it wanted to and no faster, but it would in fact pass, and so, too, would “this,” as promised. The river is never the same twice.
If I have a guiding philosophy, I suppose that’s it. If I wait out the bad things they will pass, if I fail to enjoy the good things they will pass, no matter what I do or don’t do, in fact, it will all pass, my having done or not done will have had no impact.
And I guess that’s how I , who believed in nothing outside of myself, found myself alone for 10 years, waiting for the invisible hand of something to change my lot in life, or maybe I just accepted that this is what life was now. Honestly, when I tell you the better part of those 10 years passed by in a blur, that I can’t remember them in minutes or hours, I’m not being disingenuous. Time was being itself, passing inexorably, and my life — my existence — was marching in tandem with it without having any relation to it. I wasn’t this passive before Henny Penny, I couldn’t have been. It must be one of the scars left by the virus.
It’s not that I didn’t mark the time, I did. I had a job, the job had to be done. I woke up each day, ate, bathed, sat down at my desk, logged in and said good morning two or three times a week into the microphone to my editor. Sometimes we had long conversations, sometimes not. I generally didn’t turn on the camera, had no interest in showing my face to the world.
I worked for hours on end every day. Writing, researching, reading my fan mail — I didn’t get a lot, but I got some. I rarely responded. When you’re that isolated, it’s hard to start a conversation with strangers — I dreaded getting into a correspondence with someone who didn’t interest me. I can’t explain that in a way you will understand, because in a drought any liquid should be welcome, right? And yet… I was good at the kind of writing I was doing, but I had no pride in it. It was a job, not a calling. Journalism had been my calling, politics, and then it nearly killed me and then, for a while, there was no more journalism. In the early days of Henny Penny, the virus was all anyone cared about, and when the newspapers stopped publishing, the government, then the regency, took over. It still hasn’t come back completely, and the regency still controls what there is of it. And no one has smelled ink on newsprint in a very, very long time. But so. I was left with no marketable skills other than writing but I needed to work. When they came to me to write a book about Henny Penny, I did that gladly — or as gladly as you can do something that revisits the worst days of your life. And then Bob suggested serialized fiction, making me the Charles Dickens of the apocalypse, and I took that on too.
So between the endless updates to the book — it’s online, and I’m still collecting information and rewriting, it’s how I fulfil my volunteer obligations under the regency — and my daily obligation to the paper, I kept busy and, inexorably, time passed. Whether I noticed or not.
We all mark the passage of time in our own ways, but mostly we do it by the changes in people and things around us. We can tell the passage of time in nature by whether it’s green grass or snow on the ground, whether the tree is taller than your shoulders or above the roofline. Children are great for marking time because their progress is measurable — they can lift their heads, sit up, crawl, walk, run, speak, argue, reach puberty, reach adulthood — and there’s 20 years. Ask parents where those years went and see if they can answer you.
It’s inexorable, time. It passes and doesn’t require me to notice.
Living alone, I stopped bothering, for the most part, with mirrors. There hardly seemed to be any point. At first all I’d see was this sad woman, wasted by her fight with a disease that had killed everyone she’d ever cared about. The initial sadness passed, but that lingering low-level grief — that depression — never went away and I didn’t care to look into mirrors so I couldn’t measure the passage of time by what I saw there, the increasing amount of grey in my hair, the new wrinkles on my face. Every so often when I was out on one of my infrequent trips for food and supplies I’d catch a glimpse of myself in a plate-glass window and would stop and stare, startled at what I saw there. But that would just tell me that a good deal of time had passed since the last time I’d looked — in the moment-to-moment time, in the day-to-day time, I would see no changes. I only saw it in retrospect.
But 10 years, you ask. Ten years without significant human contact? How can anyone not notice that?
Welll, I wasn’t living years, was I? I was living days. One day at a time. And I was filling those days. I had a purpose, a mission. I had a reason to get out of bed.
Evenings were harder, especially once the electricity became dependable and I didn’t just go to bed when it got dark, but stayed staring into my empty rooms, if there was nothing to write just then, or to read, or to watch, nothing to occupy my mind. That’s when I’d feel the absences bite, that’s when they crawled into my head and slithered around, and I’d cry, or make a plan to actually go into the office and see a human face — or as much of another’s face as I could see with the masks — and not just another human, but someone who knew who I was. Because I did see humans, every time I left the apartment, though that wasn’t often, but strangers didn’t meet your eye, they didn’t want to know. And I didn’t want to know from strangers, either.
So some nights when I was unwise enough to stop doing something long enough to notice the time passing and leaving me alone, to see the bare walls of my builder’s beige apartment, a place with so little of me on display that anyone could have lived there, I’d either succumb to the gloom or make plans. But in the light of day there was always a reason not to follow through — I’d need a haircut or new clothes to go out into public. I didn’t know anyone at work any more except Bob. Fear of the unknown.
Le temps passe inexorablement.
I was living in my head, too, creating people and places and sunshine and the tinkle of ice in tall glasses and conversation. A person with a good imagination can be alone, but not lonely for — well, years on end, apparently. This is going to sound bizarre but I would hold conversations with my characters. I would always cast myself in one of the main roles — I think every writer does, to a certain extent — and I would have conversations, I would care about what happened. The story would be both a play I was writing and one I was acting in.
Even before Henny Penny it would often happen that I couldn’t distinguish reality from what went on in my head, couldn’t remember whether I’d dreamt a thing or daydreamed it, or actually experienced it. I’d have to take my cues from others, what they knew or said. “I may be making this up,” I’d say, and people would laugh, but I’d be dead serious, because I wouldn’t know. I’d frantically check the internet to confirm or deny what I was sure was real but couldn’t prove. And gratifyingly often it was in fact real, so I didn’t worry too much about it. But then when I had to immerse myself in the fictive — all bets were off.
When I thought about it — and I did think about it — I guess I figured that everyone else was in the same situation as me, or close enough. I knew that some people, like Bob, hadn’t lost everyone, but I know that they were a definite minority. And I figured the rest of us poor buggers were, like me, sitting alone in our apartments, working, waiting either to die or for the world to get better, but needing someone else to take the first step to improve our lot. I might ponder the possibilities of starting a dating service for widows and orphans, for example, but I ‘d never do it. You were there, you remember the paranoia, the fear that one wrong move could be enough to to kill you. Hell, remember it — we’re all still wearing these masks and gloves, aren’t we? There’s been a working vaccine for how many years and we’re all still wearing the masks and gloves. Even though every door we walk through has its own nuker to kill any free-riding germs. And everything we learned before the pandemic tells us that’s a bad idea, we’re reducing our natural immunity to ridiculously low levels by not exposing ourselves to germs but we’re all so damned scared of getting a sniffle that, ironically, actually getting one might kill us.
And you want to hear something really crazy? I started working some of that idea — that someone needs to get the ball rolling on changing the mask and glove laws — into the pieces I was writing. I set one whole storyline around the world post-mask-and-glove, about a year ago. And you know wheat? Bob wouldn’t publish it. Too inflammatory, he said. The regency had been cracking down on the petting zoos and teenagers were going maskless at raves and getting colds, a couple had died — it wasn’t the time to talk about relaxing the laws, he said.
So I feel my paranoia was at least somewhat justified.
But I should have asked more questions. I know that now. I should have paid more attention to the world around me. Should have taken more initiative. Let me start a list: Things I should have known/said/done that I realize in retrospect. Depression though — I find it takes away your will to act, even if in your non-depressed life you would have been a can-do kind of person.
If I’d thought about it, of course, I would have known that there world could simply not have continued to function if everyone had holed themselves up in their homes the way I did. I had electricity, for crying out loud. I had running cold and sometimes hot water, heat, a working internet, and after the first couple of years of scrounging and lining up for food rations, access to food. When I went outside I saw people walking, biking, driving cars — not many of those, mind, gas was still strictly rationed and there weren’t a lot of parts to be had when they broke down — I knew the world had continued to turn, even if in my own little world it had stopped.
I guess I knew that. What I didn’t understand was that people had kept moving too. Despite their fear, despite the ludicrous masks, people continued to meet and fall in love and talk into the night, becoming 3 a.m. philosophers over bootleg vodka. They continued to die too, and they were mourned and life went on. That’s the connection I didn’t make. Take food, for instance. We all owe a certain amount of volunteer labour each year to the regency — because I was a knowledge worker and had been hit hard by the virus, making physical labour difficult, I use mine to work on my book; some people go and work on a farm. I knew they did that, knew that they had to interact with other people to do that, and somehow I thought they did so without really talking to each other and then went to their empty homes alone at the end of the day.
That life could be different, that’s what I didn’t see, living inside my head as I did, not meeting other people except for the performance of commerce. All my stories were set in the past or the far future, idyllic times when people met and talked and loved and DID things, heroic, interesting, risky, ridiculous things, they took action to improve their worlds, while for me time just kept passing, inexorably.
That’s how that happens.
The blink of an eye.