The saddest thing I’ve ever seen was a woman pushing an empty pushchair. She could well have just dropped the child off somewhere, be collecting them, have even just been to get the buggy fixed. She hadn’t though. I saw her eyes. They were glazed, empty as the hollow seat trundling in front.
Years before, lounging in a dirty pedalo drinking dirty cheap cider on a beach littered with the debris of the day, a friend I’ve since lost touch with and I saw a similar strangeness. In the small, endless hours of the dark morning, a murmuring made its way along the promenade. Giddy on the late hour and the sour liquid, we found the whole picture innocently amusing as a haggard man in his forties formed from the dense shade, cradling an infant in a sling on his chest and whispering sweet somethings. He walked by without seeing us. He carried on and so did we, less concerned by the lone man at night than we would be in years to come, more concerned with our lie bought freedom and the seaweed on our shoes.
That changed as he walked back the same way, maybe an hour later. With dawn approaching and the angle changed, we saw what our inattention and the light had obscured: it wasn’t a baby he cradled, but pots and pans. Large and small, rusted and gleaming, a selection had been arranged in the dirty, unkempt sling to give the vague appearance of an infant. The charade was weak but had worked for a time on us, and still captivated him. He was entranced by the creation, pointing out distant specks of light on the horizon in trips and falls as he stumbled along, the odd clang of the kitchenware occasionally striking him with a blow of reality.
In our sheltered little lives of 10pm curfew or hidden sneakiness in woods, of parent chaperoning until fifteen and a kind, well-meaning school in a kind and rural county, we thought that everyone was as the adults we were used to. At that time I didn’t know of the abusive parents of my peers, of adulterous adults and the fact that most of my teachers probably wished they were doing something, sometimes anything else. Everything, even when it seemed bad, was golden.
Seeing that man walking alone with his tin-pan baby in the witching hour struck at that time, a distant chord. What I didn’t realise then was that that note, the sort that ought to be played at a funeral, exaggerated by the ache and depth of tombstones and the dry eyes of onlookers, would carry on. It slowly built to crescendo and triggered something in me. After seeing that man, I started seeing the sadness in people.
Sure that man was haggard but he wasn’t poorly dressed, and the sheer expanse of utensils in his sling suggested a kitchen and perhaps – a stretch, agreed – even a penchant for cooking. If that was the case, surely he had, or had at some point, a job? If he had a job, then that meant that he spoke to people in woken hours, that he functioned in the conventional way, that a veneer of normality could smother his naked departures from reality. This man had to have gone to school at some point. He had to have watched football at some point, whether he liked it or not, had to have eaten in restaurants, pretended to like movies he didn’t, bitten his fingernails too short and regretted it, woken late and made up an excuse no one believed. He had to have been normal.
It wasn’t the night. I did consider it. There’s a great line in an Arctic Monkeys’ track which croons “the nights are mainly made for saying things that you can’t say tomorrow day”. I thought maybe that explained it. Conversations with a tin-pan baby would be tricky to explain in the cold truth of day. It was the empty pushchair which snuffed this though. She didn’t hide in the dark, but walked like a martyr down a heaving high street, shuffling along with her pain and solitude brazen as a sword through the chest. Watching her, I slowed to a spectator’s stroll as she made her sombre way through irritated and irritating school children, mumbling to herself just as tin-pan man did. Occasionally she’d stop for a moment, look down at the pram and smile. She saw the emptiness, and she smiled. With that, with knowing that the man on the beach had heard the clanging of pans and carried on regardless, I could see that they knew that what they were doing was a falsehood. Not a falsehood maybe, but a fairytale. Somewhere along the way, life had chewed them up and spat them out. Somewhere along the way, a decision had been made to spurn truth for joy, reality for a dream, to swathe the pain in layers of fantasy the colour of the life they thought they’d have.
I don’t know these people. I don’t think that I know anyone like them. But maybe that’s the point. These people, these people who had these items which they used, as a sculptor does to create a newness from the detritus, could be anyone. Someone like me even, seeing this, writing about it, and likely getting it all wrong. I’m making something up from maybe twenty second encounters. What if I just kept going one day? One small thing, one huge thing, could tip anyone over the side of the tightrope of normality. I might go too. The people walked on by, and the teenagers giggled, confident in their newness. In the pedalo, I finished my cider.