When it became clear that we could no longer survive under the same roof, I sought out and found a place of my own. It was down in the centre of the town and was located behind a pub and above the undertaker’s parlour.
This may sound suitably off-beat and interesting but, in reality, it meant nothing more than my having to wear ear plugs every night and press my way through a queue of respect-payers once or twice a week to get to my door.
The flat was tiny, little more than a stairs and a kitchen with a single bedroom tucked away in the back. There was a flat roof outside of the bedroom window and I suppose, in theory, I could have climbed out there and reclined on it as if it were some sort of external amenity. Of course, that never happened. For a start, the weather was never quite co-operative enough and also the sight of my pale body above them might have proved too unsettling to the lined up mourners below.
The prospect of this return to rental mediocrity, after so many years of suburban family living, could well have become a very real problem for me however, by that time, I had descended into an ethereal world which consisted of little more than work, sleep, and computer time.
So long as I had computer time, I could weather any storm. My marriage had failed, I was removed from my children and from my home, I was reduced to living in a bedsit with water stains on the ceiling and the constant throb of passing trucks. But I had my laptop and it remained my constant window on the world. I could watch things, read things, and interact with a myriad of unseen friends who loved to see me coming but never cared if I didn’t. I could weather any storm so long as there was computer time and a connection.
That was why the first three days were so bad. I know it sounds awful. It should have been the whole break-up/missing my guys heartache of the entire sordid affair that wrecked my head but I’m trying to be honest here. It wasn’t. It was the lack of a wifi connection that nearly killed me. If I could have got online, I would have been able to distract myself, dive down into the depths of the internet world and hide there. But there was something wrong with the router in the flat. It wouldn’t speak to my laptop. It wouldn’t even acknowledge its existence. That was hard. That was scary-hard to do. Eventually it came good. A man or a woman in a room somewhere flicked the right switch and my computer reached out and was able to touch the world again.
After that, things got better. I brewed pots of coffee that I didn’t drink, just to hide the smell of the mould in the shower and I went to bed whenever I pleased, which was never. Through my LED screen, I travelled wherever I chose and I spoke to whoever I wanted and said whatever I wanted to say. All my friends were delighted to see me back online again, although they obviously never said it in so many words.
So that was my life. I worked, I slept, and I computed. There was nothing else in that time of my life. Nothing at all.
It started in those dark days before the wifi started to work. I suppose I should come clean and say that I wasn’t doing quite so well then. I kept thinking of my old home and how it must be without me. I kept thinking of the kids too and their wondering about why I was not there. Basically, I just kept thinking too much and the aged floral wall tiles and the slow draining sink of my new home were not enough to distract me.
I set the computer to search for wifi networks, to see if there might be an unlocked one in the vicinity that I could piggyback onto, just until I got sorted out in my own right. There was lots of networks, we were in the centre of town after all, but they were all locked. That little padlock symbol was firmly closed with no trace of a key to be seen.
All of the networks had workmanlike names which were usually made up of their service provider and a series of random numbers. Only one stood out. A solitary network, padlocked shut like the rest but with a name that stood out.
It was simply called ‘Hello’.
I can tell you that I stared at that network name for a long time. In a place where there was nobody or nothing to touch me, that name seemed to smile and extend a shy hand and welcome me, without judgement, to my new reduced life.
“Hello,” I said back, to nobody at all, “Hello.
For some unexplainable reason, that saw me through. That one word on the screen of an all-but-dead laptop saw me through. When I was finally set up and reconnected to the world, I couldn’t forget it and how important it had been. I adjusted my own network and gave it a name, to pay a amount small honour and respect to the unknown person who probably lived somewhere within one hundred yards of me and who had quite possibly saved my life.
I called my new network ‘Hello Back’.
It was a few weeks into my stay above the undertakers, a rainy Wednesday evening, when I came home to find my network had disconnected. It was a momentary glitch which nonetheless brought out a cold sheen of sweat all down my spine. As I reconnected I saw the list of available networks for the first time in many days. The one individual network name had changed. It was now called, ‘Was That Meant for Me?’
I changed mine to ‘Yes It was’.
We started a conversation in that way. Changing our network names practically every day to engage in a tight little dialogue.
I had no idea who it was on the other end. Was it a man or was it a woman? All I could say for sure, by knowing the geographical limits of the network search facility, was that the person had to be close by. Possibly within touching distance.
I studied people in the street as they passed. Was that the person? Was it him? Was it her? I never thought it was a couple or a family. It was somebody alone, like me. Somebody close by.
An old building down the street was constantly trying to attract swifts to come and nest in the alcoves in its ancient stone walls. All night, it would broadcast a recording of birds calling out to their comrades. It was loud and shrill and it seemed oddly comforting until I found out it was not real. At that moment all of its comfort was forfeit.
“Come in and stay here with us,” the recording seemed to say, “we may not be real but we are noisy and we are here for you all through the night.”
The recorded birdsong kept me awake, not only on account of the raucous noise it made but also because of the tantalising analogy it almost presented for the failure of my life.
One day, the barman of the pub that made up the front part of the undertakers was standing outside. He had the demeanour of a man enjoying a non smoking smoke break. He told me once that he enjoyed everything about going outside for a smoke except the smoking part so that’s what he did.
I asked him who he knew who lived in the area and fully expected him to say I was pretty much the only one. After all, it was the centre of town, it was ruled almost entirely by shops and offices, and it effectively closed down after dark. However he told me there were lots of people quietly tucked away in the upper floors above the shops and the offices. Many were by themselves and most kept it that way. He pointed across the street with his chin to a pair of net curtained windows above the other pub, the one that had almost burned down.
“The girl who lives up there is nice,” he said.
He told me about a girl with dark hair and brown eyes who had refused to leave her flat on the morning the pub below went on fire. It turned out she had a secret cat in the bedroom, one she wasn’t supposed to have under the tenancy agreement, and she didn’t want to reveal it and wouldn’t leave without it. Eventually the firemen brought both of them out safely and the cat was still there to this day.
I wondered about the brown eyed girl with the cat. I looked out for her but didn’t see her.
One day a letter was sticking out of her letterbox. It looked like it was either junk mail or else the most important letter ever, it’s often hard to tell. I took it and brought it home. It sat on my table and stared at me in much the same way that her cat might have, if I had stolen that.
I went over at about seven in the evening and knocked at her door. I heard her come down the stairs. She opened the door fully and fast. I thought she might peer out first.
“I have a letter. I think it’s for you.”
She took the envelope and looked at the address. Her name was Nadia Something. She looked like she was from elsewhere. Dark fringe and olive skin, a trace of past acne across the cheeks. She looked like she worked out and needed to constantly fight to keep in shape.
“Thank you. How did you get it?”
“It just… came to me,” I said, “I live over there.”
She looked at where I wasn’t pointing. She almost smiled.
I just wanted to ask her. Straight out. Was it you? Was it you who called to me through the ether? Was it you that I answered?
“Thank you,” she smiled at last, “I’m Nadia.”
“I know,” I said, nodding to the envelope.”
She was gone. Turned and gone. The door firmly closed. There was only me and my streaky reflection in the paint work.
I went back. My computer was on. I checked the network connections. The one I talked to had changed again. Now it just said one word, “Good.”
I thought of names to call my network. Something that would tell her I was here, that I was okay, that all I needed was a true connection. I couldn’t think of anything. I didn’t know what I could say.
Then I noticed the other thing that had changed. It wasn’t only the network name that was different. There was now something else. The locked padlock, the symbol which was common to all the available connections, was now open on one network, the network called ‘Good’.
I went to my own network. I opened it up. It was easy. I just clicked the symbol and the lock fell away, broken.
I hurried back to her connection.
It was still open.
Gratefully, I stepped inside.