Jeremy Clarke

Low Life | 20 June 2009

I want to be alone

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Last week I’d had all I could take of the idiotic moral criticism levelled at me by those who profess to love me, and I fled and took refuge in a Premier Lodge. Or was it a Travelodge? I always confuse the two. Even as I checked in I wasn’t sure with which of the two hotel chains I’d made the booking. But the cheerful, dissolute-looking receptionist found my name on her printed list and told me I was welcome. It was the nicest thing anyone had said to me for ages.

Room 312 was a small, square room with a double bed and a small portable TV. And that was it. There was no chair, no table, no trouser press, no fridge, no hotel chain art on the wall. It was merely a clean, comfortable, carpeted cell. Yes, the room smelt of sweaty socks. Yes, the outside surface of the window was opaque with grime, lending a sepia tinge to the view of the swaying tree tops of a small park patronised by students and boozers. And, yes, the windows couldn’t be opened from the inside to let in some necessary fresh air. But the sheets and pillow cases were laundry fresh and there was nobody in it keeping up a running commentary on my moral failings. I liked room 312 at once.

I switched on the only luxury — the telly — to see if it worked. The talking head of Lord Mandelson, Grand High Satsuma of the Temple of the Inner Splendidness, materialised. Then I lay on the bed and opened the can of extra-strong lager I’d bought with me to celebrate my escape. A hissing plume of beer erupted over me, over the bed and up the wall behind me. I mopped this up as best I could with my main towel from the shower cubicle. Then I decided to go out for a bracing walk along the promenade.

I first came to self-consciousness in a pram on this particular seafront promenade. One of the reasons I’d come to this town was to reconnect the ungrateful man that I have become, if it wasn’t too late, with that happy, appreciative child. I wanted to feel, as Dylan Thomas put it, his heart moving in mine.

One of my very earliest memories is of being taken one evening to Never Never Land, a section of the cliff path where the municipal gardens were gaudily floodlit in purple and orange and blue, and fairy lights hung in the trees, and here and there was a dazzling tableau of lifelike characters, some nodding or waving, from Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm. I found this glamorous spectacle so enthralling that I haven’t really had the temerity to ask for anything more from life or the world ever since.

The path was still there, snaking back and forth along the cliff. The ecstatic shrieks of children still rose up, as I remembered it, from the adventure playground at the foot of the pier. But the gardens were meagre and enervated and the path seemed unaware of its former glory.

Then I walked the length of the fire-blackened pier and at the end I bought a collapsible clear, plastic spirits glass stamped with the logo of the Lifeboat Institute. I caught the train back to the shore. As we rattled over the sea in the tiny carriages, I was knee against bony knee with a party of elderly cockneys. They were also reviving childhood memories of happy holidays; though in their case, to judge from their blithe banter and easy laughter, the passing years hadn’t mitigated their cheerfulness or their gratitude in the slightest.

After a fish and chip lunch (I ate fish and chips six times in three days) I returned to my room. I showered and redressed the burn on my arm. The nurse had given me a pair of disposable NHS scissors to help with the job. When I’d finished I decided to cut my toe nails with these scissors. I lay on my back and pulled my foot as near to my face as I could. And with my first snip I missed the nail and cut a slit in one of my toes. Blood everywhere: on the bed, pillows, wall, carpet, even on the TV screen where I’d supported myself before hopping back to the shower room.

In the afternoon I limped the mile and a half I used to walk every day to primary school. I tried to imagine I was looking out at the passing scene through my childish eyes, but the appalling amount of traffic flying past in both directions made such a delicate experiment impossible. Here it occurred to me that leaving that child in the past was something I was going to have to accomplish sooner or later. Perhaps my reluctance to do this was at the heart of all this criticism.