At lunchtime today I went to sit by the Thames. I sat on a bench a little way west of HMS President for about 15 minutes, during which time I completed as much work of importance as I had all morning in my valueless non-job.
As I sat there I noticed a bird, standing on a large post protruding from the water. Its wings were unfurled as it dried itself in the faint sunlight emerging between cracks in the impressive clouds overhead. I know a little of birds from a few years as a youthful twitcher, half a life ago. It was a cormorant.
These can be angry beasts, but they’re uncommon enough to make them a pleasant sight during a lunch break away from desks, computers, meetings and people using words like ‘solutionise’. As I stared at the cormorant, at those fearsome clouds, at London, at the river, and considered life, one question struck me above all others.
What the fuck are all these people jogging for?
Hundreds of them, heading in both directions, most of them past their prime already. Where they’re going I have no idea and how they’ll deal with reeking like a turd rolled in Camembert when they get there is anyone’s guess.
The cormorant wasn’t fat, and didn’t seem overly concerned about flapping its wings to stay slender. It also didn’t seem to care much about eking out the very longest period of years it could before it became the sort of mess that even rats turn their noses up at as the corpse washes ashore at Rotherhithe. In all, the cormorant seemed perfectly happy with its place in the Milky Way.
Nobody could accuse me of being happy, I’ll grant you, but as the days tick by it’s becoming increasingly clear that this is all there is and moaning about it isn’t helping. I even said to someone the other day, “If I was really likely to top myself I probably would have done it by now”, which may or may not be true but speaks to a slight relaxation of the existential angst in my mind, if not the underlying rage-laden desolation.
As we’re all well aware, there are constant stories in the press about how walking 20 minutes a day makes you immortal one week and fucks your knees up the next. Today’s is: ‘Having heartburn for three weeks or more could be a sign of cancer’. I don’t know a man alive who doesn’t get heartburn regularly. I chew through Rennies like a six year old overdosing on Fruit Pastilles.
Until around a year ago I was a semi-regular visitor to the gym. I hated it more than bile could express but I went in the faint belief I was holding back the inevitable tide of fat-bastardry. It didn’t work; I was slowly rolying anyway. And since I stopped, I neither feel nor look measurably worse. Just older.
Because old is coming, regardless of how much you sprint past Cleopatra’s Needle at 1.15pm every day, head bobbing like a drunk on the tube home, clad in your tightest shorts so I can see every bulge of your astounding balls, though given your horrific sweaty face and pollution-matted barnet you could just be an ugly woman and those could be flaps for all I know.
What you hope to gain from your lunchtime exertions is between yourself and the last nurse who asked you to cough while she cupped. Perhaps you’re hoping to spend extra time with your children in later life. There’s nothing your children will thank you for more than you spending your healthier days in an office, then running, then back in an office, then too tired to function when you get home, before slowly succumbing to dementia and decay so horrifically your grandchildren’s nightmares become populated by slowly necrotising old codgers holding out their arthritic digits to scratch at their skulls with yellowing nails.
On my way back from the impromptu London marathon taking pace by the river, I walked past a man sitting cross-legged in Milford Lane. Sound asleep, glittering gold can of Special Brew by his side. Can you joggers honestly tell me you’ve a better life than him? You get back to your already humid office, sweating like Paul Merson in Ladbrokes, as he wakes up fit as a spring lamb, ready to take on all-comers just as soon as he can find the next course of his breakfast/lunch/dinner of champions. He might well be dead within the next 12 months but he’ll know very little about it once it’s over, just like you. You don’t find many regrets beneath the graveyard grass.
Because the cross-legged jakey is the cormorant. He doesn’t care, there’s no obvious reason why he should, and he makes more sense to me than an entire battalion of Lunchtime Linfords. I’d be more likely to share his dazzling chariot to oblivion than your never-ending race for deathlessness if I didn’t know he’d sooner jump up and down on my throat than let me share his tramp juice.
Perhaps he’s dead already. When I looked back along the river, the cormorant had gone. Run all you like; just be in no doubt where you’re running to.