There is a truth about loneliness that is known fervently to all those suffering from it, and yet is forgotten the very moment we find ourselves free from its oppressive yoke. That is to say that being alone is not unlike having a blocked nose.
To be lonely isn’t an emotional state: this is the lie that we tell ourselves when we are, in fact, not experiencing loneliness. It is comforting to consider loneliness an aspect of life, flavour to the great meal, where it only exists in contrast to love and joy and companionship; it’s only use to make the good in life taste sweeter. The truth is that loneliness is not an inevitable part of the human condition. We are all of us inexorably alone, forever, but alone and loneliness must never be equated: for one is being and the other feeling. Does that mean, then, that such a feeling is a foreign invader, an alien force filled with malicious and murderous intent? No. Of course not. It’s considerably worse than that. For loneliness is the foreign invader’s country itself, the nation for which he bleeds; an ontologically distinct realm where normal thought and process are futile and meaningless. As such, within that alternate reality, the lonely mind will find themselves unnaturally preoccupied with the fallacy of mind-body duality. Woe betides the one who, when surrounded by a city of people, has no friend or confidant and hears the words: “I think, therefore I am.”
Tom Kinney first came upon these words in seminar, studying for his masters degree in civil engineering. This was a career path laid out clearly by his father who, from a young age, impressed upon Tom the importance of material reality. The lessons of function over form, the harsh beauty of brutalism and the nobility of living within one’s means. He had taught Tom all of this on his eleventh birthday, when he ran off with a work colleague half his age. In their brief time together, his father had nevertheless found time away from his job to prove his cowardice, avoiding parental responsibility and forcing Tom’s mother to play the role of disciplinarian. She would see in her son the vision of her lazy, unwashed, absentee husband and would punish him for this sin with berating and beating alike. Upon his father’s flight, Tom was left in a house with the single person in the world who he feared the most.
Alternate realities are not, as the fae would have you believe, discovered by unsuspecting wanderers treading carelessly through bramble patches. They are sought after, and it is only after we find ourselves trapped within do we long for what we once ran from. Tom’s running had led him to Sunderland University, the farthest point away from home that he could imagine: the ultima thule of the UCAS system. Sunderland was not one of those university cities where the hallowed halls of education and self-improvement were the ancient bastion upon which local history bent. Rather the university buildings were the only new developments the city had seen in decades: An unsubtle message from the post-industrialists that their time in the sun was over – they needed to go back to school.
When Tom moved into his university accommodation, a pitiful room in a pitiful shared house, the local/student divide made itself known. True enough, a local could be a student, and by the same measure a student could be a local, but there was no such animal as the local-student. His fellow students were, then, locals and Tom found this a gap impossible to bridge. Instead he latched onto the only kindred spirits he could manage to find: the long dead mathematicians and the lecturers who introduced him to them. He would find time for conversations with both equally, but he found them all the more important to him for their distance.
Where his lecturers were smart, engaging and passionate, his seminars were led by a bored, pretentious teaching assistant, who seemed to believe that the inclusion of cartoons and comedic GIFs in his presentations sufficiently covered up the fact that he never finished his PhD. The Descartes quote had come to Tom in such a form, attached clumsily to a speech bubble protruding from a half-finished skyscraper.
In this moment, Tom became aware of the alternate reality he had unknowingly been inhabiting. Because when someone takes “I think, therefore I am” to heart – when they believe this in the way that turns pyramids into UFOs – they understand that the only evidence of their existence is their own thought. And, given this is the only suitable metric for existence, they come to realise that no one else exists. As you cannot think other people’s thoughts, neither can you prove that such thoughts exist. And, as such, other people cannot exist. It is only you.
As I said, it’s another reality.
Tom didn’t really believe other people had thoughts, and didn’t really believe there were other people at all, and, in pursuing this line of thought, was forced to come to the conclusion that all diversity and difference of thought was either deceit or delusion. He knew that the capitalist believed in the immortal science of Marxist-Leninism, but for his own avarice pretended that he did not. He knew, also, that the fundamentalist Christian had no true faith – religion was merely his opiate of choice. So when he heard the screams and the stomping of feet, the whirring of engines and the blare of sirens, he was appropriately unfazed.
His library sessions were long and unproductive, motivated more by a desire for quiet than study.
Finally emerging at 2am, he promptly set to wandering the city streets; a habit as natural to the terminally alone as it is perverse to everyone else. It was a night that would go down in infamy, but he didn’t know that yet. All he knew was that he was hungry, and the idea of being heard making noise in the kitchen at this time of night made him feel physically ill. He was heading towards the chip shop when he first saw someone flee past him. If he had believed that it was a real woman, he would have imagined a mind in distress, driven by fear and horror and the thoughts of the meagre life she had lived so far and a desperate determination to have it continue regardless. But he did not believe she was real, so continued on unabated. When more people ran past him, groups at a time, in tight jeans or short dresses, holding heels in their hands or with faces marked with glitter, he walked on still. It was only when that solitary shade, marching across the city centre with machete in hand, came up to his face that he finally stopped.
It wasn’t fear, as after all, what does the main character have to fear from the bit role? It was something else that stopped him. He would have liked to joke about it, to say that it was the strength of the man’s stench that stopped him in his tracks. But, in truth, his nose was blocked. There was no fear, no bravado, only a deep sadness, a wretched realisation that sent his muscles into atrophy.
By the time the police arrived on the scene, the man with the machete had long since vacated the scene. They nevertheless cordoned off the site of the attack, provided shrouds for the mangled bodies and hosed the concrete clean of blood. For many of them that would be the end of that nasty business, but, regrettably, some were nevertheless compelled, no doubt by oaths sworn to paperwork idols, to search for the culprit’s identity. They scoured social media for eyewitnesses, determining who had been at what restaurants, what clubs, that evening, but these people had been drunk and distressed at the time, their testimonies contradictory and worthless. So next they contacted local news radio stations with a plea for information. If anyone heard such a plea then they heard it on their way to work and had forgotten it by day’s end. Finally they went by house to house and cursed at the abject cruelty of a universe that made them do their jobs.
When the police questioned him, he lied. He was in the vicinity and had heard the screams, but he couldn’t identify the man. That’s what he had said. He had been very polite about it. Offered refreshments to the officers who had turned up on his doorstep and had spoken in the way his mother always instructed him. But Tom had lied. Because he knew the man’s eyes were emerald green, he had seen them from behind the greasy hair that streamed down his face and around the bald spot on the right-hand side of his forehead. He could have described the shape of his wispy moustache, the piercing in his eyebrow and the tattoo on his neck. But he didn’t do any of this. The alternate reality had a comforting reason as to why; what would be the point? The police officers were no more real than the machete-wielding murderer; no more capable of solving a crime, protecting a community, than a life could take away the life of another.
Tom had looked death in the eye, seen the carnage he had wrought, walked through the blood that he had spilled, and been spared. Before the police arrived, Tom had taken the time to enjoy the particular quiet of the city centre that night. A chilling silence only interrupted by the noises of those who had not yet realised they were dead. Of the myriad corpses left behind, he recognised but one. His teaching assistant seemed determined to make even his death sputters sound boring; long, drawn out and irreverent. His heart did not stir for the puppet that bled out in front of him. After all, is it not the lot of meat to expire? He felt sympathy, instead, for the dread man who wrought such horror. In those emerald eyes, Tom had not seen a reflection of himself; rather he had seen every dimension and milieu of the alternate reality of which he was so familiar. He had been spared not in a moment of mercy or passivity, but one of recognition. The emerald-eyed man had considered the evidence of the universe and decided that perhaps there exists other people in Hell.
Image by Anna from Pixabay – brown image of 5 people and one dog running in the same direction.
8 thoughts on “On Alternate Realities and Blocked Noses By Daniel Ashmore”
This is superb. The style and pace of your writing it so compelling. The whole opening exposition on the nature of loneliness is incredibly well written and though provoking – the analogy to a blocked nose and then reference to Tom’s blocked nose when he greets the machete wielder is nicely done. I admire how the ending has a level of ambiguity – is it that Tom is the axe murderer? Is it that he thinks he might be the axe murderer – therefore a literal ‘I think, therefore I am’? Anyway, great stuff – thank you.
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My key concerns with this story were absolutely its pacing and ambiguity, so it’s very gratifying to see that those are the elements which worked for you. Thank you for reading!
Impressive work. The closing sentence is as good as any I have seen in a long time. Certainly looking forward to seeing more of your work.
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Thanks so much! Happy to be here and hopefully cooking up some more interesting stories soon.
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Nothing like a bit of grim solipsism to start the week! Impressive word-work.
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College / University life. Around sixty years ago, a bit fewer it was “What if our universe is just a bit of dust within a bigger universe”. Now it’s “What if we are a simulation”. I may have that wrong, but generally higher education is a place to be impractical before faced with paying for utitilities.
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Great piece of unsettling writing!
This is all about the ending but I was quite happy to go along with it. Some of these, you just know that it is all about the ending and you sort of skip to it, but, not with this.
It was so subtle, a sort of understanding, kinsmanship (FUCK YOU SAM SMITH!!!), recognition, tolerance sort of idea that was superbly understated which made it very, very unnerving!!
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Thanks for reading, and happy I could keep your attention until the ending!