Sunday, 8 March 2009

Dinner at the petrol station

For around two weeks, I had been stopping there on the way home from work. I was doing a lot of overtime and having a pretty rough time as a result. Actually, that isn't quite accurate. I was having a pretty rough time at home, and as a result I was doing a lot of overtime.

I was living in this flat with a nurse and her boyfriend. He had a tattoo of the Alien emerging from his shoulder and was interested in home cinema and high-performance motorcycles. We got on alright, but I was absorbed in my own anxieties most of the time and so I avoided having anything to do with them on general principle.

This was the routine: I would leave my office somewhere between five and six o'clock, with the code I was writing locked away for the night, and I'd nurse some well-worn tapes on the train ride home. I would step out under the low arch of the train station with my ears firmly plugged, and walk home past the allotments and training fields in the dark. Every night a different tape. I didn't have a stereo, so whenever I visited my parents I made more. By the time I left the job, I had over a hundred. Many were scratchy tapes of my parents' record collection, which I found very comforting to listen to.

At first I'd been stopping in for a yoghurt or a very occasional chocolate bar, but after a while I began to buy most of my food from the convenience store attached to the petrol station. Cornflakes, packed sandwiches, cartons of milk, microwave curry.

I don't recall exactly when I became scared of using the kitchen. I had a couple of cupboards there where I had been storing food, and of course some space in the refrigerator. One time I almost blocked the sink, which I can believe would have been the root of it – but I don't remember.

It was a high and blazing summer that year. They began sending us home from the office after the air-conditioning broke down, as the architect had put in windows that couldn't be opened and we had all begun to cook in our cubes. Everywhere I went, my shirt stuck to my back. Appetite dripped out of me steadily. One evening, I began to successfully picture myself as a lobster. I was having a lot of strange dreams.

It was hot without mercy or interruption and now I had lost interest in cooking for myself. I had already lost interest in ironing my laundry, reading books, listening to the radio, drawing, and staying in touch with my friends. I would have retreated into my own private realm, but it seemed like too much effort. Most of the time I sat staring at a computer on a wooden chair that I'd borrowed from someone.

Food I bought from the petrol station was generally dismal and expensive, but I didn't care. I had long since given up on all but the most petty satisfactions. Besides, it meant that I didn't have to deal with the kitchen. The kitchen was too full of other people's things. My own room, which was also too full of things, somehow offered nicer views.

All the same, it bothered me somehow. After a few months, I realised one morning that it had the same wallpaper as the room where I had recuperated from measles five years previously, and all became clear.

I had been eighteen, and for most of two weeks I had laid up with my body transformed into something I didn't recognise. I clearly remembered watching from the depths of delirium as the geometric pattern of the wallpaper slipped and whirled. I had seen bombed-out buildings, fleets of swarming black helicopters, deserted streets and clouds of wasps appear within the floating, shifting shapes.

I began to wish I'd never taken the flat, but somehow it never occurred to me to look for another one. That would have been impolite. Nonetheless, my dreams were beginning to bother me. Once I was in a lighthouse off the coast of the Azores, jerry-rigging a sound-weapon to be aimed at the United States, where a lizard the size of Canada had torn itself from the earth - what had once been Toronto was what it had for a brow - and was devouring entire states at a time. Its fangs drooled oil and its hide was starred with seams of coal. I know these things because I looked at it through a telescope.

I took out the 100W light-bulb and installed a weaker one. Eventually, I reached something of a crisis point. I developed a justification for leaving my computer unplugged and switched off, and with a little stockpiled cash, I bought a stack of paperbacks and a few records, and for about a month I did nothing but read them.

For those long evenings I sat comfortably in my room, reading silently and voraciously by the light of the sunset outside. The windows opened on the little courtyard, and since the tenants of the downstairs flat had apparently just discovered Belle & Sebastian, their music drifted easily up into my room all night.

In time, life began to draw back some of its colour and salt. A friend of mine had invited me to visit, and for five days I was amongst his friends. I was invited to lessons in martial arts where I learned for the first time how to throw a punch. We relaxed in the glorious green parks of Oxford and patiently endured each other's favourite records at night.

What is it in the nature of the things we remember, that each memory contains worlds within worlds? I am trying to draw out the character of these separate places into this writing, and as I look through them each surviving memory is its own little nourishment. The petrol station was there, and the diseased patch of concrete by the garages was there, and the square of lino cut away where the cat had destroyed a bird was there...

There's just no end to it.