Only The Lonely
by Iain Rowan

It wasn't any one event which made Andersen decide to withdraw from the world, just the weary accumulation of knowledge that loneliness was a state he desired, rather than wished to avoid.

He felt hemmed in by the seething tide of life. All around him people walked, shouted, jostled, staggered, lived. He smelt the hot animal stink of their sweat, he felt their spittle when they spoke, warm wet drops landing on his face like soft rain. Their noise oppressed him, hemmed him in, made him feel small and insignificant, one whispered phrase in an endless roaring conversation.

Wherever possible he avoided company, certain that everyone he met was a member of a club to which he could never belong, and as a result he was always lonely. He avoided people and in the end, because of this, they avoided him. The only way in which Andersen could cope with this solitary existence was to turn his loss into an ambition. He turned loneliness into an goal, a religion, his salvation. Where others were ashamed of their solitude, as if it were a dirty, shameful secret, he celebrated his. After a time, those few people who attempted to include Andersen in their lives, or who tried to show him some kind of friendly gesture, abandoned their attempts and left him as he wished: alone. Or rather, as alone as was possible. For Andersen that was not enough.

It was for this reason that he decided that he would withdraw from the world as completely as he could. He stayed in his shabby room for nearly three days, sitting in a wooden chair in the corner farthest from the window, doing nothing except thinking, planning. On the morning of the third day he pulled a crumpled few bank notes from the crevice behind the blackened, tarry oven. He didn't have a list, he didn’t need a list, he knew everything that he needed. Andersen stuffed the money into his pocket, and set out to the shops, braving the agonies of human contact more cheerfully than he had done for some time, protected by the knowledge of what he was about to do. Even so, when he returned home from the last of four separate trips into the town, aching and weary from carrying materials, he spent the better part of half an hour washing his hands. Not of the wood and plastic he had bought, but of the grease and skin of those others who had handled it, touched money, sneezed and coughed and breathed over it all in the never-lifting human miasmic fog. Then he curled up on his bed, still dressed, and slept for an hour.

Before he began work, Andersen sat and drank tea. He pulled his wooden chair over to the window and sat there for ten minutes, watching the never-ending movement on the streets outside. Cars started, drove away, pulled up, people got in, got out, clustered in laughing groups upon the pavement. An old man with a brimmed hat that shone in the sunshine as if it were covered in plastic wandered slowly along the pavement, stopping to rummage through litter bins, occasionally plucking some item out and dropping it into the large canvas bag he carried. He wore a large overcoat which almost trailed along the ground. The day was far too warm for such a coat, but Andersen suspected that the old man never went out without wearing it, no matter how hot the day.

Andersen drank some more tea, swirled the cup in his hand and watched the delicate bubbles spinning round and round in the last half inch of copper liquid. Outside, the ever-moving patterns of life continued, like a stop-motion film of insects at work in their colony. Andersen finished his tea, and set to work without looking out of the window again.

He worked with a slow and steady determination that countered his lack of natural aptitude. The tools felt heavy and clumsy in his hands, the wood and glue and heavy card and thick wads of insulating foam refused to take the shapes and properties that he wanted them to, but he persisted with steady patience.

Piece by piece, his vision began to take shape. Light was his pathfinder. Where light came in, it was light which had shone over the world, light which had shone onto the people Andersen could still hear laughing in the street outside. So he started with the two windows. He stapled large sheets of black card against the window frames, and then lined their edges with black insulating tape. When he was finished, he stepped back into the room,reached for the switch of the table lamp, and turned the light off.

All that he could see was blackness. After a time though, this diminished and he could make out the vague shapes of his few pieces of furniture. That was just from the light coming in under his front door; no matter how much he squinted at the windows, he could not make out a single point of light. Andersen switched the table lamp back on. Now for the sound, the sound of cars and laughter and shouts and dog barks that were transmitted so easily by the thin glass of the windows. He taped thick slabs of insulating foam to the inside of the card sheets that blacked out the windows, and then covered the foam up with yet another layer of black card. He cut more foam to fit the gap under the door, and carefully stuck a trailing strip of black tape along the bottom to prevent the slightest glimmer of light from coming in.

It was only then that everything was as Andersen wanted, only then that he felt that he had control over his world and could narrow its boundaries down to the limits of the stuffy room, excluding everything - everyone - else. He sat in his room, making final preparations, conscious of the fact that he was now more alone than he had ever been in his life. He was far from saddened by the thought; he was filled with a fierce joy. As he worked, he felt as if he was an explorer who had spent months battling through insect-infested dank jungle. Now the trees were beginning to thin, and the air was starting to taste of salt, and he burned with excitement at the knowledge that in a few more paces he would come out of the trees and see the shining ocean, and all around him would be cool air and space and a freedom that stretched as far as he could ever see, or ever think.

Finally, Andersen was finished. He put a cushion on the floor, and next to it he placed the table lamp, a small radio, a pair of head phones and a length of black cloth. He sat down on the cushion, plugged the head phones into the radio, put them on, and then tuned it to a frequency which far away from any station, a warm, constantly shifting hiss. He turned up the volume until it was almost unbearable; he would get used to it. Andersen made sure that he had the black cloth safe in one hand, and then switched the light off, dropping the room into darkness. He wound the cloth around his head, covering his eyes first, and then wrapping down so that it bound the headphones closely to his head, giving an added layer of protection from any sounds from outside. Darkness within darkness within darkness. He could see nothing, and the deafening hiss in time appeared to subside, become comfortable, comforting, totally without humanity.

"I am alone," Andersen said. "For the first time, I am alone." But he couldn't hear himself, just the hiss of the static, music of the universe.

He lost any conception of time very quickly. It seemed as if hours, days, had passed, but he was concerned that he might be mistaken, that it would only have been minutes, that if he left his solitude now he would open the window to the daylight of the same day falling on to his skin, the same laughing voices, the same old man trudging over-dressed down the street. The room began to feel oppressively warm and Andersen felt that for every breath that he took, he only gained half a breath's worth of air. He ignored all this, and sat on his cushion, trying to remain as still as possible, listening to the constant random hiss and swirl in his ears. The heat and the airlessness closed in around him, and after a time he sank into a deep sleep, still sitting upright.

When he woke up, he decided that it was time. He unwrapped the cloth from his head, switched the radio off, took the headphones off and left them on the floor. His hand roamed about like a spider until his fingers touched the table lamp. Even though he shut his eyes when he switched the lamp on, the glare still seemed to penetrate deep into his head. After a time, he dared open his eyes to narrow slits, looking away from the lamp, and gradually his eyes adjusted so that he could see what he was doing. He spent some time striding awkwardly around his room, trying to regain circulation in his arms and legs, and then he stripped the materials from his door and left his room, walking down the quiet stairs of the building, meeting no-one on the way.

Andersen walked down the street. The air was fresh and clear, the sky an even cornflower blue. He turned the corner into the main road. Cars stood deserted in the middle of the road, doors hanging open like broken wings. The yellow awning above the café flapped above empty wicker tables and chairs. Shining in the sunlight, the plate glass doors of the supermarket stood wide open, and aisle after aisle stretched out towards the back of the shop with a geometrical beauty that Andersen had never really noticed before. He wandered into the deserted supermarket, picked out an apple, and then walked down the empty road towards the silent city.

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