This isn't Lord of the Rings fanfic! It's a short story about a man who tries to cut himself off from the world and become a recluse, but draws attention to himself by mistake. It could happen to anyone. Some profane language in here, folks.
The main advice I would choose to give anybody wishing to be left alone is to not declare their intentions. If I had to pinpoint the one major mistake I made when going about my plans, that would be it. It’s very easy for a single, middle-aged man with far flung relatives to disappear off the radar by accident – all it takes are a couple of unanswered phone calls from the four or five people who still telephone him on a seasonal basis, and eventually they’ll forget about him entirely. For a man to trumpet his intentions to all and sundry in a fit of pique, though – that’s a colossal error.
It all began with my mother’s death. I will admit it was a shock to me. She was my sole surviving parent, and despite her age seemed completely indestructible. If I wept, however, it was only for the missed opportunities we both had in life to perhaps get on with each other. My father had died of cancer a mere two years after I was born, and she spent most of my childhood complaining to me about what a curse her life was, having to bring a child up by herself. It didn’t take me long to draw the conclusion that I was in the way.
I had always assumed that my father dying was also the reason behind us living in relative poverty, but when I was at the reading of her will I received my second shock. I may never have received any presents from her but it was, as they say, as if all my Christmases had come at once. I am tempted to advise any parents who may be reading this to starve their children of gifts in a similar way – the elation in later life almost makes up for it.
I arrived at work the next day and immediately announced my intention to quit. The windfall I had received would be enough to pay the mortgage off on my small terraced house, and leave plenty of funds besides for wise investment. Not only did I tell them I was due to quit, I also spelt out to my colleagues there my intentions in full:
1. That they were to never contact me again for any reason.
With that, I put a hastily scribbled resignation letter down on my boss’s desk (who was enjoyably speechless for once) and left the office, never to return.
I sent similar messages to my friends, who were by now distant from me either in location or in attitude anyway, and sat down and waited for the silence I genuinely hoped would descend upon my life. Of course, society refuses to make such moves so simple. No friend ever got back in touch, but somehow my behaviour registered with somebody somewhere in authority, as a social worker visited my house. The conversations I had with the pony-tailed prick who came to visit were among the dullest and bleakest I have ever had in my life. Perhaps it was meant as payback in some way.
"Was your mother’s death a shock to you?” he asked, more than once.
“Of course it was a fucking shock,” I replied. “Why are you even asking me that?”
At this, he would nod sagely, as if he had hit upon the root of the problem. On the other occasion he came round, he probed me deeper to consider the effect of my actions upon society at large.
“I want to be left alone,” I replied. “For the longest time in my life I have wanted this, and now I finally have the means to achieve my ambition”.
“Why do you want to be left alone?” he asked.
“To avoid conversations like this one,” I said.
“No, really,” he said, smiling and touching my arm.
“I meant what I said,” I told him.
Next came the children in the school holidays. I awoke late one morning to hear stones striking the window of my bedroom, and looked out on to the street outside to hear children yelling “Oi, Gandalf! Gandalf, you fucking prick!”
Quick as a flash I opened the window and bellowed at them to “Fuck off”, at which point they fell around laughing. One immediately began singing “Oi, Gandalf you prick, where’s your fucking wand?”, and was rapidly followed by his sidekicks, singing and running along the street.
They were back the next day. And the day after that. And the day after that. It was stupid of me to swear at them. Foul language is one thing, but giving troubled children the attention they crave is a much bigger social faux pas. I started to go to the rear of the house as soon as they came to bother me in future, and once the holidays were over it seemed to be forgotten about. Before time I stopped being a local figure of curiosity and began to get the silence I had craved for so long.
Of course, my life wasn’t empty, and I had pursuits to occupy my time. I hadn’t been completely idle since my mother’s death, and had in fact begun to build chess sets from scratch. There was never any purpose to this, since I had no need to sell them to anyone and had no desire to invite anybody around for a game, but I had always admired the different styles the pieces came in, and the craftsmanship that went into a good, solid board. Once I had made thirty different sets, however, my options began to get limited, so I began to invent boards of my own – smaller boards hidden inside cube-shaped large boards, boards incorporating mirrors and glass, sets consisting entirely of pawns in the shapes of celebrities with the King and Queen as Jesus and Mary, boards with pendulums attached with bishops hanging by their necks from the swinging cord, boards which folded out into a space as large as the floor of my front room with factory workers, peasants, bankers, and vicars alongside the knights and rooks. I invented logic systems for them all, rules for games which were never going to be played or even explained to anyone else. If anybody were to burst into my house tomorrow and accuse me of being lazy, I think they would be quite shocked at just how much I’ve achieved.
When you’re living alone and only going outside for constitutional strolls or visits to the hardware store or supermarket, it’s surprising how meaningless time becomes. Nonetheless, I would estimate that I had achieved five years of relatively uninterrupted bliss before I encountered my next disturbance. It happened on a September afternoon. I was sanding down a wooden chess piece in my bedroom when I became aware of voices outside. I looked out of the window to see two young women sat on the wall of my front garden. I stared at them for a minute or two. One was a typical and unremarkable looking teenage girl with her hair dyed banana blonde, the other a scruffy, short figure with cropped and wavy hair, wearing a grey cardigan and faded corduroy trousers. She looked like somebody who could have been a young student at any point in the last fifteen years — timelessly broke looking.
I creaked my window open, and small pieces of plaster fell around me as it banged and snapped into position. They failed to even notice, and so I caught a few seconds of their drab conversation.
“Yeah,” said the blonde one in a nasal voice, “don’t bother getting a job in your first year of college. That’s the most important time to develop your work. Leave it until the second or third year.”
“Oh, I can’t believe I’m studying art at Goldsmiths!” giggled the other girl excitedly. “How many people can really say that? How many?”
“Excuse me!” I interrupted. “Is there anything I can do to help either of you?”
They both took perplexed glances at me – looks I had by now grown used to from the public – then the brunette smiled and sweetly and simply replied: “No, sorry. We’ll be off”.
She patted the shoulder of her friend, and they both walked away from me towards the north end of the street. Unusually, however, she turned to me and smiled – not vindictively or mockingly, but genuinely – just as she began to walk away. I tried to suppress the pang of jealousy in my chest as I watched them both leave. Their lives seemed full of possibilities, ones which had long closed off to me. They were both drunk on their prospects of their youth and the infinite number of directions their lives could go in. I couldn’t even borrow a second of that feeling from them. I had long accepted that in my life, as one door closed, another door closed also.
I had thought that would be the end of the matter until I heard a knock at my door a week later. Upon opening it gingerly, believing it to be another possible visit from the authorities, I was amazed to see the smiling brunette girl standing in front of me again.
“Hello,” she said, looking at me as if I were a familiar friend.
“Hello,” I replied, then, in an unfriendly tone meant to terminate all conversation, “Look, what do you want, exactly?”
“Well, since you ask,” she said, still smiling warmly, “I wanted to know if I could take a look at your chess sets”.
I was lost for words. I looked at her disbelievingly, looking for any traces of familiarity – perhaps she was a distant relative who had heard talk of my behaviour, for example – but I recognized nothing. All I saw was a very girlish looking, averagely pretty woman with olive skin and a certain helpless scruffiness about her. She couldn’t have been older than nineteen. In the end, I decided to continue being indignant with her.
“How do you know about those?” I snapped.
“Well, in all honesty,” she said, with a breezy wave of her hand, “I saw them through your front window”.
I was amazed by her brazen attitude. I had never encountered that in people twice her age, particularly where all approaches towards me were concerned. I am quite sure that neighbours have peeked through my front window, for instance, but they certainly wouldn’t bother to be so open about it.
“What were you doing spying on me?” I asked, but I was surprised to find that my tone was getting gentler.
“I just guessed that you had to be up to something in there,” she replied, “and that it would probably be interesting, whatever it was, and in the end my curiosity got the better of me. Sorry,” she said, with another disarming smile, and a very slight shrug of the shoulders.
I relented with a similar shrug of my own. I figured she wouldn’t be back to bother me again if I showed her anyway, whereas refusing would probably just make her even more curious, and cause her to snoop around even more. She followed me inside the house.
“What’s your name, then?” she enquired.
“Peter, although don’t bother remembering it, because you won’t need to,” I said. “I suppose you want me to ask what yours is as well, otherwise I’ll be considered ‘rude’ or something”, I continued.
“My name’s Danielle,” she giggled.
“Well, it would be, wouldn’t it?” I reasoned.
“Danielle, Justine, Charlotte, one of those names,” I sneered. “I don’t know why they didn’t just give you an entry form to art college or stage school with your birth certificate”.
She looked at me slightly perplexed rather than hurt, then followed me to the front room.
“Fuck me!” she announced as soon as she walked through. “I mean – sorry but – Christ… this is a total… shock. There’s even more than I could see through the window!”
Her mouth was agape, and she was staring at the plethora of pointless toys in the room. Her head moved backwards and forwards, taking in the board with its bishop pendulum, the cube board with illusions of mirrors and glass, and the semi-burnt board of bored arsons.
“This… can you actually play games on any of these?”
“You can,” I replied, “but you can’t really win at any of them, not unless your playing partner is so brainlessly bored that he or she makes a stupid mistake or just quits.”
“How do you mean?” she asked.
“They have rules, but they’re not rules designed for intellectual stimulation or fun”.
She continued to gawp at me, so I impatiently continued, hoping explaining the situation would cause her to lose interest and go away.
“Look,” I said, “see this celebrity chess board here? It consists of a King and a Queen, who are Jesus and Mary, and nothing else apart from pawns. Endless pawns in the shape of Hugh Grant, Nicole Kidman, Princess Diana and Steve Guttenberg, and others besides. In fact,” I continued, “you could fill this whole bloody board with pawns if you wanted to, from A list to Z list celebrities, and it wouldn’t make any difference to the quality of the game. They can only move one space at a time, and they’re not much fun to play with”.
She stared at me for a bit to see if I was joking, then asked “Why did you build that?”
“I don’t know,” I replied.
“Well, come on,” she said, “I’m guessing you were going to do something with it – sell it, exhibit it, something like that?”
“No,” I replied. “I don’t want anything to do with other people, and doing anything with my work would involve them getting them deeply involved with my life again”.
“Oh,” she replied, as if this were something she heard every day.
She stayed for a few minutes longer, walking around looking at everything I had done. It wasn’t the first time it had received gazes from a chance visitor, of course – a plumber had seen it only last year when one of my pipes burst – but it was the first time anyone had shown it any particular interest. I decided to let her carry on. Watching her as she moved around, the jealousy I felt for her youth returned, but I decided I didn’t completely dislike her as I did most people. She had the confidence of somebody much older, and the scrubbed, make-up free face of somebody who could be trusted. You may think I’m talking rubbish here, but believe me, you can gauge how much women can be trusted by how much make-up they wear. It’s no coincidence that air hostesses, shop assistants, and actresses cake themselves in it – it’s their mask, their method of being somebody else, somebody their job requires them to be. If a woman turns up on a first date with you wearing thick make-up, don’t kid yourself you’re going to learn anything genuine about her that night, although don’t go doubting that she’ll want your entire life story before she’ll agree to see you again. It won’t be an even deal. It never is with those sorts.
Finally, Danielle seemed to decide that she had seen enough.
“I suppose I’d better leave you in peace,” she said. “Thanks for letting me in to have a look – it really is wonderful, honestly”.
“No problem,” I said. “Thanks for not being like all the other bastards in this area”.
That was a huge compliment for me.
Shortly after she left, I began to faintly miss her. Or, not so much her, but the idea of somebody actually being interested in my life. That angered me. I pushed it all to one side, and told myself that it was all right – she would never call again anyway.
Weeks went past. I visited the local hardware store seven times to stock up on wood, and the supermarket twice to frugally purchase the cheapest vegetables on offer. I designed a new chess board where all the pieces were supposed to be marble mentors (pompous professor statues of a kind) but little else of note happened. Then there was a knock at the door again. This time, I opened it and Danielle was stood there with her badly dyed blonde friend.
“Er… this is a bit cheeky, I know…” Danielle started, “But would you mind if I showed Louise your chess boards?”
“Oh, never mind,” I sighed, exasperated. “Hello Louise, why not come in, eh?”
“Heddo,” said Louise nasally.
Danielle got me to explain the chess boards again, which I must confess I didn’t mind doing. I’d explained the concept of them to myself over and over, so my pitch was already very well rehearsed – but articulating my reasons made them sound like something more than a folly, and therefore brought a purpose to my life. With me vocalizing my intent, the work appeared to be acquiring meaning. Perhaps, like a tree falling in a forest needing to be heard before it makes a noise, a folly needs to be given a rational explanation by its creator to an audience before it becomes art.
Not that Louise seemed very interested. She seemed to spend the whole visit sniffing and looking marginally bored, whilst Danielle gushed and pranced around everything I was doing trying to persuade her how “marvelous” it was. After a quarter of an hour or so of this failed attempt to persuade somebody else that what I was doing was anything more than a total waste of time, Danielle eventually gave up and said she’d be on her way.
“Nice to see you again,” she said, “and sorry to trouble you.”
“Ah, whatever,” I replied with a shrug.
Of course, you will doubtless be familiar enough with the patterns of human interaction to know that this wasn’t the last time I saw her at all. As much as I half-hoped this would be the case, I knew deep down that the odds of her drifting back into the realms of strangers were getting longer with each visit. In fact, she came knocking on my door again a week later, this time by herself again. Bypassing all niceties entirely, she simply excitedly let herself into my house as soon as I opened my door.
“Welcome,” I said, half-sarcastically.
“Listen,” she jabbered, ignoring me entirely, “I’ve got a brilliant idea. The way I see it, you’ve got to go along with it. If I get some photos taken of this work in your house, and show them to somebody at the art college, what do you reckon about seeing if you can get them exhibited?”
“Danielle,” I said through gritted teeth, “do you just not get it? I don’t need money, and I don’t need people to see what I’m doing here. In fact, forget that, I don’t even want people to see what I do with my life.”
“But you do!” she said. “I just don’t buy your stupid story that you’re doing it for no reason!”
“Look,” I said firmly, “It’s an intellectual and artistic exercise for me, OK? Some people play Suduko. Others fill in crosswords. Some people play solo tennis up against a garden wall. I make chess boards nobody can play with properly. I also live by myself surviving on as little daily contact as I can get away with. That happens to be the main ambition in my life at this stage, not the chess boards.”
“Please,” she said, fixing her large green eyes at mine.
“No,” I insisted. “No. Nothing good will come out of you showing your tutor somebody’s works of folly, and nothing good is going to come out of my private work being displayed in a fucking gallery anyway”.
“I think people will like it,” she said, getting redder around the cheeks. “I don’t think you know how much this is going to be appreciated by other people.”
She then did something which surprised me. She stormed into my front room and sat down on the only chair which rested in the corner. There, she folded her legs underneath herself in a typical yoga pose, and smiled at me defiantly.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Guess,” she replied.
“No, I really can’t fathom out what on earth you’re trying to achieve”.
“Then I’ll tell you,” she said smirking. “I am going to sit here until you agree to my proposition. I am not going to move one inch. I’ll even sleep here the night if that’s what it takes. If you value your privacy so much, you’ll do the right thing.”
I twitched nervously.
“I could easily turf you out, you know,” I countered.
“Yeah?” she replied. “And do you want to know how easily that could be misinterpreted? A young girl in an old man’s house, notorious local weirdo, all by herself… him dragging her screaming on to the street… ooh, tut tut tut.”
“You wouldn’t dare!” I yelled.
“Try me,” she said, raising an eyebrow.
I sighed, and left the room to go upstairs. As it happened, I had stayed up most of the night carving chess pieces, and was tired anyway. I estimated that if I went to sleep for a few hours and returned downstairs again, she would have lost patience and gone home. Seven hours later, I went downstairs and found her up and about and as perky as ever, sat in the same chair reading a book she had pulled down from one of my shelves.
“Won’t people wonder where you are?” I asked wearily.
“No,” she said. “I slip off out and do things by myself all the time. I’d give it another 48 hours before anyone sends the police out looking for me”.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” I conceded, “all right then, Danielle, have it your way. Take the photos of the chess boards. What will it achieve anyway? Just so long as I end up seeing out the next few months here and not being interrogated by the fucking police or some social worker again, do what you want”.
“Thanks,” she said, smiling sweetly, and left.
I was beginning to wonder if my original assessment of her was accurate at all, but became aware of a swelling rush of excitement rather than the continual snagging resentment I had felt around others for most of the last twenty years.
When I next went to the hardware store to buy some wood, I also purchased a bathroom mirror. I had owned one before, back in the days when I worked for a living and the way I presented myself counted for something, but had deliberately unscrewed it from the wall and dumped it as soon as I had decided to live a more solitary life. Appearances matter for nothing when you have nobody in your life you wish to impress. I had got by in that time by occasionally trimming my beard and hair with some kitchen scissors. The odd glimpse in a shop window soon showed me if I looked fatally ridiculous or not – mostly I just erred on the side of unsightly. With Danielle now clearly visiting regularly, however, I decided I’d better make some sort of effort. It was good manners, that’s all – I felt as if I’d made the girl feel uncomfortable enough already.
She arrived with her friend Louise again the very next day, who had an expensive camera hanging around her neck. She wordlessly took Louise into the front room where she began snapping the boards, with the same expression of vague boredom she had before, refusing to engage me in conversation.
When she had finished taking her photos, Danielle grinned triumphantly and said to me “Thanks. I really mean it. You won’t regret this, Peter.”
I reeled from the shock of hearing my own name so much – I had almost forgotten what it was – that I almost didn’t notice her kiss me on the cheek as she made her way back outside.
By the time I next saw her, it was winter. I had actually given up hope that she would ever knock on my door again, believing that the likely result of our last meeting was probably disinterest and perhaps mockery from the people she had shown Louise’s photos to. In one sense I was relieved, on another I couldn’t help but locate a deep hurt, a drooping, melting hurt in the pit of my stomach, about it all. I found myself realizing that I had never bothered to take down her contact details – why would I? – and I wondered what she was up to. I wondered about the art she might be doing herself, whether I would ever get to see it, and who else she was friends with. I even wondered if she had a boyfriend.
When she turned up this time, she was unseasonably tanned, her usually black hair had gentle light brown streaks in it, and she had faint freckles on her nose and above her lips.
“I’ve been to Thailand!” she announced loudly by way of introducing herself.
“So I see,” I said, and let her in.
“And as I didn’t get you a Christmas present while I was away, I come bearing a gift. I’ve shown your work to some people who are interested in giving you an exhibition”.
I was stunned into silence.
“It’s a small little gallery in the East end, but it’s a good one – enough to get people interested”, she said.
I continued to say nothing.
“So, my little friend,” she said in a strange fake Mexican twang, “you life changes from here! What do you think about that, eh?”
Silence seemed to be the only logical response.
“Hey,” she said. “aren’t you pleased?”
“I don’t know what to think,” I replied.
“Because I’m really happy for you,” she said. “Come here,” she said, and hugged me. I hadn’t been hugged in three decades.
The rules I had built up around me had suddenly ceased to apply, and the world was now banging at my door, telling me ridiculous stories, inviting me to share my ridiculous notions… and anything seemed possible. In the heat of such a ridiculous Hollywood moment, and in the spirit of anything being achievable, I kissed her on the lips.
“Pete, I…” she said, so I went to grab her to kiss her again. She struggled and squirmed away from me, and the next few moments were awkward, and I cannot quite explain what happened next. I think I remember shouting, but somewhere between me reaching out for her and her attempting to get away, I caught her by the arm, and the next thing I knew there was an almighty crash, a thunderous noise as numerous wooden objects, incomplete chess pieces, parts of board, and fireplace knick knacks fell in the struggle, and she was on the floor, sobbing, a large cut above her left eye with blood oozing from it on to the floor. She seemed momentarily stunned, and I was speechless both about what I had attempted and the consequences of it. She began to sob and ran out of my house on to the street outside.
I decided not to chase her. I felt I had done enough damage for one evening.
After she left, I regained enough composure to return to my front room, and sat in the chair she loved to use. I did not turn on the light, but I turned on my cheap, fake household fire, one of those pathetic pieces of seventies plastic which simulates a flickering fire by the unconvincing use of concealed red light bulbs and serrated metal discs. As the pseudo-flames flickered and span around the walls of my room, I considered my own reckless stupidity, and wondered if perhaps it was this – rather than other people – which had caused me to retreat in the first place.
I also cursed my fate. If anybody were in control of my life, or people’s lives generally, and kept a timetable and a map of who should meet and when – why did they choose Danielle to enter into my life? Why her and not some fifty year old widower, who might have been more suitable for making my life better?
“Because,” I thought to myself, “fifty year old widowers have gone on to develop other concerns in their life besides eccentric men and their follies. They think about their children, about walking holidays in the Peak District, about a safe retirement – not unusable chess boards. It could only have been an impressionable young teenager knocking at your door, who would only have found the idea of a romantic kiss from a bearded, awkward, foul mouthed fifty year old man repulsive”.
I barely had time to think that when a new colour joined the room – the blue of a police car light also swirled around in the midst of the fire’s fake flames, picking up chess boards and pieces as it searched around the room. I only had seconds to admire this, watching the cold and warm tones mingling with each other on the flock wallpaper in a conflicting cocktail of homeliness and danger, when there was another knock on the door, and a new gang of unwelcome people let themselves into my life. From that moment, I knew my original plan was as good as dead, and that I had shot my entire life down with one solitary bad decision.