Reality At Last

Except to visit my mother on Sundays, I rarely saw anyone. And I only saw her because she didn’t have a computer. If she did, I’d probably Skype her and save myself the hour’s drive.

‘You spend too much time on that computer, that’s your problem,’ she always scolded me.

‘It’s my job, mum.’

‘Funny job.’

I’d explained to her a million times what I did. But she never got it. ‘So you’re a journalist then?’

‘Yes. After a fashion.’

I was a blogger. Mainly techie stuff on gadgets, computers, game consoles, phones, and hi-fis. Occasionally films and music. Sometimes travel. All written without ever having to leave my house.

I’d often thought of destroying my laptop. Covering it in lighter fluid and setting it ablaze. But I never did. I couldn’t. My income was linked to my work. My work linked to my computer. My computer linked to my friends. My friends linked to friends I didn’t like.

At the moment I was looking at a photo of a man I went to school with twenty-five years ago and who had asked me to be his friend on social media. I clicked YES, despite the fact that for two years he’d made my life at school a living hell. I even sent a message asking him how he was.

I closed the lid of my laptop and decided it was time to go out. I walked to the shop and bought a packet of crisps, a sandwich, and a can of Coke paying with my card that attracted a fifty pence fee because it was under a fiver. It made me wonder when I’d last used cash.

I ended up in the park and sat on a bench under a cherry tree fumbling in my pocket for my phone. It wasn’t there. It was at home next to my laptop. What if I get a call? A message? What if the guy from school messages me back? Fuck! I opened the can and took a long swig, feeling the sugar rush into my system, calming me down.

I ate my sandwich and crisps and looked up at the cherry tree. So real. So simple. I tried to hold that thought for as long as possible before it vanished. Alcoholics and drug addicts think they have scrambled minds, but I bet they can concentrate longer than the average computer junkie.

My blog posts often took an age to write because I was always flicking to social media, replying to comments or updating my status. Barely able to spend more than a few minutes writing before I was back LIKING someone for eating ham and eggs for lunch. LIKE!

I sometimes made a rule that I would write before I logged on. But that rarely lasted more than ten minutes, as I would invariably have to go online to check some information. And once online, that was it. Two hours later, I’d have a million windows open on my browser, having totally forgotten what I was looking for in the first place.

After my snack, I went home and posted a statement on all my social media sites saying I was offline for the foreseeable future. ‘Are you OK?’ someone said before I could get out the door— Six worried emojis in a line.

‘Yeh, I’m fine.’ My final comment.

I packed a bag and took a train to the coast and booked into a B&B along the seafront. £30 a night. No wifi, no TV. Bathroom along the corridor to be shared with the other guests, of which there were none. It was like walking back in time thirty years. To the summer holidays when we used to stay in guest houses as a family.

The room had a thick brown curtain pulled over a single window that looked over a yard full of bins and rotting cardboard boxes. The bed had a single mattress that smelt like it was made out of seaweed. The tiny sink in the corner of the room was cracked and the water pressure almost non-existent, a dribble of brown water, barely enough to wet a toothbrush. The room was heated, but only just. Enough to prevent ice forming on the windows. It was perfect for what I was planning.

That night I headed down to the local pub a few doors up, got drunk on cider and ate pork pies and pickled eggs for dinner. The next day I walked up the coast as far as I could go and then came back again. Eating fish and chips on a park bench before going to the pub.

For the next four weeks, this was my routine. Walking in the day, sitting in the pub talking to the locals in the evening. I didn’t use a computer or speak on a phone. Except to call my mother once a week from a payphone to say I was alive.

I ate a lot and drank a lot. Walked along the coastline breathing in the fresh air. I put on weight, I had colour, I felt healthy. By the time I returned home, I was a different person.

The day after I came back, I wandered down to the Job Centre. ‘I’ll do anything physical,’ I told the advisor. ‘Except clean toilets.’

Four days later I was mixing concrete on a building site. It was dirty, backbreaking and exhausting. But when I got home each evening, I felt incredible. Eating and then collapsing into bed for a full nine hours unbroken sleep, before getting up at 6.30 a.m. to do it all again. Six days a week.

Friday and Saturday nights I went out on the town with my friends. Not my old friends who were still staring into their screens. My new friends from work. My real friends who I could touch and wrestle with. Talk and joke. Flesh and blood. Clichés, the whole night long.

‘You seem happy,’ my mother commented one Sunday four weeks later.

‘I’ve got a girlfriend,’ I announced, a fibrous string of green bean hanging from my mouth, ruining the moment.

Her mouth stopped moving as though it had been turned off. The piece of braised beef she’d just put into her mouth remained unchewed as tiny puddles of water appeared in the corner of her eyes.

‘I’m so pleased,’ she finally said. ‘What’s her name?’

I told her.

‘Where did you meet her?’

‘The pub.’

‘The pub?’ She seemed surprised. ‘I thought young people didn’t meet in the pub any more. I thought they met online.’

She started chewing again and finally swallowed her meat. Then she took a sip of the fizzy white wine she always drank during Sunday dinner. ‘I’m glad,’ she continued. ‘I thought you were going to sit at your computer for the rest of your life. Become one of those sad old men staring into a screen.’

‘I’d thought of it,’ I joked, pulling another sinewy strand of green bean out of my mouth and placing it on the table cloth. ‘But I decided to get my life back. More wine?’