Daylight breaks in through my window, which is unsurprising as I have no blinds, and no curtains. There is a tree outside that provides some salvation from the morning sun, but even in early August the sun beams in to my room from around 9am. It’s a small room, above a flat, above a bookies. I like it, being at the back of the house with a low horizon and some trees, it feels like back home, not here in the city.
Time to get up and head into town, by bus on a day like this, to avoid the crowds swarming in every patch of sun under the tall buildings. I am on a mission, so I put my headphones in and ram them right into the ear canal. There’s a certain irrational safety and isolation by not being able to hear the surroundings, like it provides a blanket of invisibility over a nervous and awkward host. This is exactly what I need today. Get in, get out, do it fast. I can already feel the anxiety building in my breathing, and a thin film of sweat forms on my brow.
The problem I have is that when faced with a situation I know will make me feel the fear again, I start to predict and plan it out, looking forward into the future to try and rationalise the feelings, to explain why my mind is beginning to race. Here I sit on the back of the top deck of the bus, and even I can tell I look shifty from the outside. My eyes are wide, as always, taking in all the information they can gather, but my pupils dart around, as I follow and fixate, follow and fixate, intermittently from behind the glass window. These days I don’t know what I’m looking for, but it has become second nature to look at the world this way. From time to time I catch a reflection of myself in the window and almost gasp. I listen to the music, letting it resound around my head, calming the voices, letting me think consciously. It takes a remarkable amount of energy to suppress the sounds inside my head, let alone contend with the ambient sound of society, going on all the time, all around me.
I know this bus route well, so don’t need to plan anything yet, and I’m sitting down, which helps. There’s something about my appearance that almost guarantees a seat to myself on anything but a busy bus, which I don’t mind one bit. The bus meanders up the road, stopping at every stop, held up by every red light imaginable.
As we approach town I check my kit, and realise it’s all there, ready for use. I choose my stop carefully and climb down the stairs carefully as the bus gently accelerates and decelerates. I take to the pavement and all at once the force of the crowd permeates through my headphone protection. I’m nervous around this amount of people. It’s not the people, it’s having to watch them all, to monitor their route choices, their general appearance, any possible problem points. My eyes burn as they take it all in, and I try to focus on the door to the shop, the wide atrium behind it seems calmer, quieter. As I approach I see it was a mirage, there are hundreds of people in this shop, roaming the aisles and idling in groups near the wider points of the walkway. Terrible waves come over me, I feel my hands trembling and I begin to observe things that are out of place. A security camera moves to point in my direction, behind it’s perspex one-way mirror, but I can see the little red LED. A shopper glances at me and I know they are one of the people to be wary of, one of the watchers.
I’m moving fast, but not running, that would draw too much attention. I move along the empty aisles, avoiding all the narrow places, where a single person in my way could spell disaster, a torment of politeness as we move past each other. I am moving towards the section I think I need, but never having been here before it is a complete guess. I turn to avoid a row with three young women in, and bear left. I look up and notice all around me are bra’s, knickers, lace, cotton, underwear, unmentionables. This would cause embarrassment if I were not so petrified of all the living bodies, moving around in this room. I actually feel relaxed as there are few people in this section. I think of the girl from last night and immediately feel guilty for doing so in a lingerie department. I then picture her knowing that I had just thought of her while glancing at something lacy and black, seeing the awkward upset on her face, and the hint of disgust at this perverted thought.
There is small open area and I dart through it, looking for the best way into the next room. I walk through and begin to slow, knowing that I am nearing my destination in this shop.
The shelves are stacked with different coloured material, wrapped in plastic sometimes, open and unfolded in others. I peruse the selection and pick up an off-white cotton fitted sheet. I’m back in the atrium at the till paying, and I feel somewhat calmer, knowing this mission is nearly at an end. I pay and put the sheet into my bag, and I’m back out on the street. It seems like a different place, all the colour from before has been washed away, leaving behind grey concrete and paving slabs, drab people and ochre busses, heaving by with strain on the flat road. The world feels like an injured animal, bleeding as it limps along, trying to find a suitable place to rest, to stop, and never to move again. All the people are just matted fur, the busses an occasional pulse of blood from the wound. The animal is dying and we are all part of it’s death march. Here in this place I realise that death is what I can smell and taste, what is overcoming my senses and stifling my breath. Weakly, I move towards the bus stop, hoping a bus will come along soon and rescue me from this place. I need to get home, back to safety, relative safety, where I can take a break in my room.
The bus ride home takes a long time, but the sky is bruised with small grey clouds, and I feel relaxed, in the knowledge I’m heading home. There aren’t many people, and I feel glad of that. I get into my flat, up the stairs to my room, and lay on the bed, listening to the muted world outside. Aeroplanes fly over, at a distance, the gentle hum of their engines drowning out the sharp noises from the road outside. My eyes are closed and I feel calm but my mind is still racing, decomposing all the information I took in before, analysing the images, checking for incongruities in the way reality twisted around me.
When I’m most nervous, when my senses are running flat out, I can sometimes interpret all the information coming in. I can feel it rushing into my mind and thoughts. It should overwhelm me, but I can feel the hard realities flowing into a deep ocean, glimmering with a million different perspectives and images. The way I picture my mind receiving all this information abstracts me from the world, and so I exist, albeit temporarily, a few millimetres offset to the main artery of the world. I can feel it now, lying on the bed, looking at the ceiling and letting my mind run through the short term memories of the day. My forehead feels tight, as my face focuses in on each piece of data, and have to consciously relax my muscles around my face and head. I can feel it running down, slowing and slowing, like a wheel that appears to reverse and stop before slowly moving in the direction of travel.