Lonely in a Sea of 8.9 Million
The groggy fog of your afternoon nap begins to dissipate. The thundery rumble of an ignored stomach calls you to action, and when the gnawing reaches fever pitch, you know it’s time to go. Of course, because you’re not a local, you don’t know where. The suggestions of a previous traveller, a close friend, ring in your mind and, with a scroll on your phone, you find the perfect place.
As you gaze out your window, you notice the grey: London is living up to its reputation. Following your mother’s well-worn advice, you grab your jumper. You’ve been here for a couple of days and the stroll to the tube is almost second nature; just down the street and on the left. It’s sticky outside and the sweat is already starting in your armpits. You notice you’re the only one wearing a second layer, but who cares, you’re in London and it’s colder here. The street is almost as familiar as the ones back home, a gin house up on the left wedged between two corporate monstrosities. There’s a supermarket on your right; the memory of your first shop there gives you a small swelling of pride and even more confidence in your ability to fit here.
All your musings about the makeup of this neighbourhood are interrupted by a sharp jolt on your arm. A man is tapping you on the shoulder. Your smile evaporates, replaced by a look of fear, a transition so quick it frightens you even more.
“I know I look scary, but I’m not dangerous.”
The man fits his description: a scraggy bear, unkempt hair and a wild look of mania is in his eyes. Out of fear, all you can muster is a simple okay.
“I’m just really lonely,” he stammers.
You feel horrible, but what can you do? You’re just a twenty-something far away from home.
“Sorry,” is all that trickles from your mouth before you tear away, leaving him alone in the street.
The steps to the underground feel steeper; you glance behind before going through the turnstile. Skipping your usual underground activity, watching Netflix, your focus shifts on to the other passengers. All are dressed in proper summer clothing. The stifling heat of the carriage causes you to abandon your jumper, but even with this shedding, you’re still sweltering. The guy opposite looks grumpy, but the swaying of his head and headphones indicate a lack of hostile intent. You know you shouldn’t be jumping at shadows, but your gut is telling you otherwise.
Emerging from the underground, you’re blinded by the evening light. It’s never this bright so late at home. The sounds of the boisterous Friday crowds fill the night; you can hear all their chatter about work, social life, normal stuff. Passing them silently, you are on the lookout for a familiar face you know will never appear. Muttering a chorus of sorrys and pardons, you worm your way through the crowds of bar patrons spilling onto the streets and continue north to your Mecca: a bao restaurant with 4.3 stars.
Once you break free from the crowds, you glance downwards at your open maps app. These sneaky looks, whilst exposing you as a tourist, reassure you that you’re not lost and in a small way, stem the tide of anxiety. With each street being crossed, your stomach grips a little harder. Usually an unwanted feeling, your hunger is a welcome distraction from your racing heartbeat and melting body.
The restaurant is buzzing with workplace gossip and the usual first-date introductions. The waitress flutters over to you. Her eyeshadow has started to spread, forehead glistening with beads of sweat, and red roots have taken shape in eyes. She already looks worn out and it’s only seven.
“Have you got a reservation?”
“Uhh no,” is all you can stutter back. You are solo, the thought of a booking was the last thing on your mind.
“We can’t slide you in until 7:45.”
You glance down at your phone again; it’s 7:13. Thirty-two minutes shouldn’t be that long, after all, you could just grab a drink around the corner. But your racing mind and grumbly stomach want food now. So you just mumble a thank you and walk away in search of somewhere unpopular. The dry itch on your skin intensifies as you wander aimlessly from street to street. The rumbles of your stomach have greatly affected your standards, leading you to settle on a simple sandwich from a nearby Tesco. With dinner in hand, you amble off into the night to find a place suitable to dine.
You find a spot underneath a light post; it’s visible, but safe. The grass feels dry and imprints small sharp creases on your hands. You reach into your bag whilst gazing at the various groups picnicking around you. The contrast of the smooth bao you envisioned with the stale reality of a £5 supermarket sandwich is something that enters your mind as the “mayo” touches your tongue. The stark difference between your expectations and reality sends yet again another swelling of anxiety down your body.
You think about the earlier encounter. Could he really be alone? Does he have any family left? Is he too scary-looking to have friends? Surely he must have some acquaintances amongst the nine or so million souls in London, but whether they can still be contacted is another question. You wish you could call someone in this moment, but the clock says that’s impossible. After all, feeling lonely in a park doesn’t really constitute an emergency.
An idea comes to mind. Dusting off the remains of your stale sandwich off your legs, you stand up and, with a little creak in your right knee, begin your journey back back. Your destination is full of people who aren’t from here, a gathering of nomads or, to the inexperienced eye, a hostel bar. But before you get to the fun, there’s one last step in your journey: getting rid of this bloody jumper wrapped around your waist.
Once this troublesome item is removed, you take shelter amongst other solo travellers, free from the scary things that lurk inside your mind and on the streets. A quick scan of the bar and you notice a lone figure idling away on her phone. You stagger out of your chair and ask your fellow drinkers whether she should be added to your own crowded table.
Taking one last gulp of your warm beer, you wander over and take a deep breath. Gazing into her deep blue eyes, you invite her over for a game of cards.
“I may look scary,” you add, “but I’m not dangerous.”
Cover by Viktor Forgacs