Monday 8 April 2013

staring at the sea, staring at the sand...

"Aujourd'hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas. J'ai reçu un télégramme de l'asile: Mère décédée. Enterrement demain. Sentiments distingués. Cela ne veut rien dire. C'était peut-être hier"

The opening line, of course, from "L'Etranger" by Albert Camus. Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don't know. Now that's indifference on an epic scale. Shocking, numbing indifference. How could anyone feel like that about something so earth-shattering?  The death of your own mother, for goodness sake.

Those lines popped into my head this afternoon when I heard about the death of an old lady. Oh, not Thatcher.... there's more than enough being written about her already without me chipping in. No. I'm talking about a lady who lived just a little down the street from us. I barely knew her.  She seemed a bit of a miserable old cow, to be honest. Badly dressed and with the most shocking dyed orange comb-over.  In fact, in the ten years I've been living here, I don't believe we've ever so much as exchanged a single word. I used to say "hello" to her politely every time I saw her, but she never once replied or smiled or even acknowledged my existence, so a cheery hello soon became a smile, then a nod and eventually nothing at all. I just wrote her off as a sour old cow with a terrible hair-do whose face would probably crack if she ever smiled.

It turns out that she died. Some time ago. How do we know this? Certainly not because I missed her and cared enough to pop round to make sure she was okay.... but because apparently the cleaners came to her house today with their overalls and their masks to clean her up.

Yeah.  That.  I'm not sure shake'n'vac is quite going to cut it for a job like that.

I didn't know this woman at all, but I couldn't stop thinking about her this afternoon. How sad to die on your own and how sad that no one noticed.  I'm not hypocritical enough to deny my own indifference here - I didn't know this woman in life and I won't miss her now she's dead - but surely you're not human if you don't feel a twinge of humanity at the thought of someone dying alone like that.

She won't care now, of course. She's dead and the dead don't care. It happens to all of us sooner or later, I'm told... whether you die unnoticed in your own house, in a hotel room at the Ritz or freezing cold on the street.

It's all the same. We all die.  If we're really lucky, someone will care.

Here's Camus again:

"Je m'ouvrais pour la première fois à la tendre indifférence du monde"

The gentle indifference of the world.  Look around you: it's everywhere.


  1. I sometimes marvel when I watch award ceremonies or something - you know, BBC Sports Personality of the Year or something. They might be doing an incredibly moving piece on someone who was well-loved and died in the past year, but when they cut to the audience, I'm always struck by how you only have to go one or two people back to move from utter devastation to total indifference and perhaps boredom. Something completely life-changing for one is likely a bit meh to the person standing right next to them. Maybe that's how it has to work or we'd never see the point in doing anything ever.

  2. "Furtively, the doctor's wife adjusted her watch and wound it up, it was four in the afternoon, although, to tell the truth, a watch is unconcerned, it goes from one to twelve, the rest are just ideas in the human mind". Shit book, but that quote comes to mind too.

  3. This is something on my mind as well, as we get older, I'm finding not that I am losing friends, but it is harder to keep them, as they move away, lives change, and as sadly, they die and there will come a time when we know barely anyone left. Especially if you do not have children around in some circumstances, or nephews, etc. I'm wondering. How does this happen?

  4. well, my wife asked this afternoon if Thatcher's husband was still alive. No, I said. Well, that's the curse of being a woman: we're destined to outlive you all. Cheerful thought. As I've apparently got a lower than average life expectancy anyway because of MS (statistically speaking), then I'm not sure it will ever come to this, but who knows?
    Be nice to your neighbours though, eh? Let's hope they don't just remember you as a terrible smell.

  5. (the outlive you all thing was my wife's thought, btw... not mine)