Last summer I fell into a rather odd routine: I would wait for my family to go to bed, break out the headphones, and then watch films or play video games until the dawn started to break. I would then go out into the back garden, enjoy the new day, and then very quietly sneak upstairs and into bed.
On one such evening, I elected to watch The Grey. As Liam Neeson has, by and large, stuck to relatively mindless films since becoming a widower in 2009, I was expecting something fun and brutal, but not something requiring an excess of thought. The trailers had done nothing to alleviate this, in what can only be described as an almost criminal example of misdirection. The only thing I knew about the film? Liam Neeson punches a wolf in the head. You can see where my expectations came from.
Instead of my mindless fun film, I got one of the most affecting movies I’ve seen in years. A bleak and desolate look at depression, and death, and the survival instinct. A group of oil workers crash-land in hostile territory and are hunted to the death by a pack of wolves. Credible? Maybe not. It certainly sounds clunky, but in execution, it’s perfect. Neeson’s character is a damaged, depressed mess at the start, but he becomes the man everyone wants next to them in a crisis. Capable of easing a man’s passing and, when it comes to it, yes, punching a wolf full on in the head. Because of course he did, he’s Liam Neeson. He has a very particular set of blah blah.
The upshot is that the film didn’t leave me as soon as the credits rolled. Instead it led to me trawling the internet for the next hour, listening to the sadder type of classical music and looking for someone to eloquently explain, or at least agree with, the level on which the film had affected me.
When dawn came, around half 3 or 4 in the late summer, I was not yet ready to go upstairs. As always, I walked into my back garden, barefoot, to look at the day. Unusually, I brought my laptop with me. Still playing its classical songs. Because I couldn’t bear to turn them off or leave them yet. And the morning was beautiful in the way only summer mornings can be. The air was cold, but warming. Everything seemed frozen and brittle. The sun was full, but not yet warm, hazing halfway up the horizon. Nothing was moving, there was no wind, no sound. It was a weekday, and the time of the morning when latecomers had made their way home, and early risers were still awaiting the alarm. And I put my laptop down on the outside table, opened the gate, and walked. Still barefoot, I just walked. In the centre of the road. It seemed an entirely natural progression, the only thing I could possibly have done. I walked out of my road, out of my estate, and down the middle of the main road through the area, and never saw a soul. I was just gazing around, taking in the air, the sky, the trees and fences and houses, the parked cars. It was like I was seeing the entire world for the first time, feeling it and smelling it and hearing it. Tarmac scraping my bare feet, dust and dirt getting in between my toes. I walked maybe 10 minutes down the normally busy street, and then sat down. I just sat down in the middle of a main road and looked around. I was aware of the marshes stretching away to my left, the endless housing to my right. The sea far beyond that. I was aware, in a hard to describe way, of my footsteps behind me. And the stillness.
I couldn’t tell you how long I was there for, watching the sun rise in the sky and listening to the birdsong. Then I started to walk back the way I had come. And it was on the return journey I finally noticed whose world I had actually stumbled into. It belonged to the cats. Everywhere I looked there was a pair of yellow-green eyes following me. When I moved they would follow. When I stopped to turn back, they would just stare. I don’t think I ever saw one move. Still seems ludicrous, but it’s what happened. I was followed home by a contingency of cats, all confused by the early morning interloper on their world. And all completely silent, of course. Because there’s no point following someone unless you cover all the bases required to make it creepy.
It’s only now, thinking back that I realise just how trusting I’d been to the emptiness. I walked back through my open gate, the sounds of Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel still coming from my laptop, the back door to my house unlocked and open.
I sat on a chair to hear out the end of song, still feeling like nothing was entirely real, or else entirely new. Looking at the familiar garden as if I’d never seen it before. Marvelling in it. Then I just packed up my laptop and went to bed. That was it. That was the next natural progression. To just finish it and go to sleep. I think I’d completely forgotten about it until the other day, when a friend mentioned The Grey and made it all come back.
And that’s the icing on the cake, really. How completely normal it seemed. It wasn’t even worth the creating of a specific memory. Like I’d done it every day of my life. Only looking back does it take on some significance. It was a mix of philosophical imaginings left over from the film, and the beauty of the morning, and it just led to a thoughtless barefoot trek through the town. Basically, and to use an adjective vilified throughout my entire education, it was nice. If you live in an area where it’s possible without getting hit by a truck, I thoroughly recommend it. If you live somewhere it isn’t, visit somewhere it is.
Maybe you’ll get followed by cats too, I don’t know. Maybe the cats around here are just weird. Why not.