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The truth about timers
So much of life is anticipation, killing time, counting down to the next gold star in your calendar.
My days are ruled by timers.
The Apple Watch I received as a gift a couple of Christmases ago clocks up minutes of exercising and standing, until that satisfying, glimmering animated firework on its tiny screen lets me know that, today at least, I was good enough. More frequently, on account of my bad memory and propensity for distraction, I set myself reminders, forever counting down to something. Usually it’s mundane stuff, like fifteen minutes until I need to check the potatoes, or one hour and forty-eight until the washing is done, occasionally it’s medical – for example, today I’m in a cycle of applying a coldsore remedy to the affected area every three quarters of an hour, as per its very insistent instructions. Living to this exacting drumbeat reminded me that life is a series of countdown timers, the seconds being whittled away until the next big event. Milestones loom: first kisses, white weddings, babies, the clunk of a generation shifting position like Caramacs in a leisure centre vending machine. Biological clocks tick down in the background, our bodies nudge through the first grey hairs on command from our DNA’s centre of operations, fertility wanes, and we try everything we can to block ourselves out as busy before St Peter can sneak in a meeting request. Timers, everywhere, trying to bring order to a future we will not recognise.
Living in the moment is hard. It’s impossible to quantify, always on the move. The present is the Weeping Angel of time; it cannot exist while being perceived. Stop even for a second to register your feelings and – whoosh – it’s already in the past. The future gets a bad reputation for being unpredictable, but the present shifts and tips without warning, often due to forces beyond your control. The future, or the version of it inside your head, set by timers, marked on calendars – definitive, immovable points – seems more stable. Although perhaps we forget the volatile, inscrutable present can turn everything on its head.
Timers don’t just count down completion of the task in hand or conclusion of your patient waiting, they preempt detonation. If we all followed the preposterous old cliché “live each day as if it’s your last”, the world would descend to levels of utter chaos even the maddest and cleverest fools could hardly imagine. We cannot work that way; we prefer to remain ignorant of timers until they’re spent. Only then, when the consequences of that conclusion are clear, do we care to understand what took us there. Perhaps this is why the climate emergency isn’t registering for some. It’s a definite, almost tangible countdown, but the endgame is so unimaginable, it’s like a disaster movie, and everyone’s waiting for the hero to swoop in at the very end and save the day, with 00:00:03 left on the clock.
So much of life is anticipation, killing time as the next gold star in the calendar approaches. How many months and weeks do we wish away, awaiting the wedding of a close friend, say, or a much-needed holiday, or weekend visitors? I remember my first book The Last Romeo being announced in January 2017 and the publication date of February 2018 seeming so distant, fretting late at night that a) I wouldn’t finish it in time and b) that I might die before it came out. (Seriously.) In January, I bought tickets to see Madonna in concert and it seemed inconceivable that something nine months away would even happen as planned. It was like October 2023 was October 3575, surely the world would end before then? As it turned out, Madonna was taken ill and the tour almost never happened at all, so the universe did try to remind me of the fragility of these timers. Some people don’t even get the joy of anticipation. Calendars are blank, no lighter moments to come. We’re commanded by self-help memes to make each day count, but not every day can count, some must be insignificant. It is in fact a great privilege to live a clutch of days per annum that are drama-free and mundane, rendered vanilla by their lack of suffering, excitement, despair, or elation.
There is a brilliant line (among many) in one of my favourite books, Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal, toward the end, when one of the main characters, who’s committed a terrible misdemeanour, is finally confronted at her home, her secret about to be revealed to her husband. She walks down the stairs, to face the oncoming storm, and thinks “I have only a few minutes left of my old life”. I think about that sometimes, the countdowns you’re only aware of as the zeroes begin to line up, the person you cease to be in an instant, the new version of you springing into life to adapt to the change.
The most insane and/or exciting day of your life is just another Thursday to someone else. It’s why we say life goes on: not to be cruel, but to prepare ourselves for the inevitable shrug from the rest of the world as your own universe collapses. I have crystalline memories of the day after my dearest friend died, when another close friend and I travelled across London to collect a few essential yet trivial items from my house that would allow me to mourn uninterrupted – clean underwear, toiletries, stuff to make me feel more human in the most alien of times. Enfeebled by tiredness and hunger, we reluctantly stopped midway, at a branch of Pret. It was bustling with the lunchtime rush, overpriced sandwiches flying off the shelves, shouted coffee orders disrupting the strange, robotic calm I felt inside my body. All I could do was autopilot to the cabinets and pick out a plain cheese sandwich, cut into four like at a children’s birthday party – the pandemic has since nixed these kiddie portions, I think. Every other offering seemed so fussy and frivolous. It was a form of self-flagellation, maybe, residual guilt for surviving, but also a desire for plainness, something that wouldn’t overstimulate my taste buds. I needed a bland chew toy to avoid distracting me from the task in hand, which was to reel in numbed shock that a timer I’d never realised was set had raced to zero. All around us, life continued, loud and oblivious. Food was eaten, trains pulled into stations and out again, pavements were choked with people, music piped from speakers in shops, and the world refused to pause. Quite right too, I suppose. Still, their timers ticked on and I knew, one day, it would be their turn to be me. I hope they found somewhere more peaceful than Wimbledon Pret when it happened.
I would write more, but there’s an insistent buzz at my wrist, and a faint jangling bell. A timer, naturally. Nothing seismic, no skin to shed, no brave new face to paint on. The laundry is done. And it won’t hang itself. So I’ll leave you with a small reminder that even though life is full of timers, you needn’t be ruled by them. A blank space on a calendar holds as much value as a gold star. Not every day has to count, but you should live them all the same.
MORE FROM ME:
My debut novel The Last Romeo has been selected to feature on BBC Two book show Between The Covers, championed by bestselling author and comedian Adam Kay. I’m so thrilled and a bit overwhelmed by it all, really. Presented by Sara Cox, the show goes out on Monday 20 November at 7pm and will be available to stream on iPlayer. Here is a lovely picture of Adam and my book on set, with Sara and other guests Sandi Toksvig, Omari Douglas, and Alex Jones.
The truth about everything* is different every week. Sometimes it’s essays like this, but there are also reviews of TV pilot shows in Ejector Seat, pop analysis in The Madonna Diaries, a look at columnists and their tropes in Word c0unt, and mini-essays about topical events in Mood Ring.
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