Monday afternoon. I am standing before 100 or so undergraduates in a cavernous lecture theatre at Birmingham University. Ten minutes to go and I am going to round off my lecture with a story. We can discuss it next week.
I scan the auditorium. The students are still listening attentively, pens at the ready. One in the front row, a pale girl, has a small tape recorder and reaches into her bag for a new cassette. A pigeon settles on the sill outside one of the high windows and, watching the pigeon, I forget momentarily what I was about to say. Then it comes back to me: Robert’s story.
One day, in the foothills of his middle age, Robert took a look at himself in the mirror. He saw that life was running out and he was going nowhere. He was going stale: bored with his job, out of love with his wife, stifled by family life, disenchanted with himself. But what gripped him and shook him to the core of his being was the thought that he was literally going nowhere. The thought that, at the end of this dreary line of days, there was oblivion. It was time for a change, and changes there would be.
That same day on his way to work he stops at the newsagents, as usual, to buy a newspaper. He pays for the paper but on the way out, he takes a chocolate bar from a shelf and slips it into his pocket. This little act of theft is curiously energising. His senses feel stripped and raw. He is engulfed by a feeling of elation and drives faster than he should. But instead of going to work, he travels 300-odd miles from Yorkshire to Cornwall where, by early evening, he finds himself sitting on a beach in the face of a warm sea breeze. Robert is profoundly happy. The sun sets, it grows dark and chilly, but there he stays all night, conceding to sleep only as the sun began to rise again. He returns home the next day with no explanation except the truth, and spends another sleepless night placating his distressed wife who demands a more plausible version of events. What were you thinking of, she says. He says he’s been thinking about everything and has put a few things straight.
Life reverts to routine for some weeks. Then,…