Last summer, I saw a digital ghost. I was walking around the Ring of Brodgar – a neolithic stone circle in Orkney – in the early hours, at the first light of dawn. I raised my phone to take a photograph of the standing stones silhouetted against the sunrise and saw, on the camera screen, a dark figure moving across the heather at the centre of the circle. But when I lowered my phone, the figure was not there. It seemed to have only existed digitally, within my internet-enabled device.
I have never liked myself as a smoker. A full decade and a few thousand cigarettes in, I still don’t. But what keeps me at it, with fondness, is that I might not have him were it not for the fags. When I was very small and his beard was still black, he would kneel by the bathtub and I would sit happily in the warm water. His eyes would swim as he babbled to me and I babbled back.
For longer than I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with stuff. The sort of stuff you keep because you think you might need it at some point down the line. I’ve got stuff in drawers, stuff shoved under the bed, stuff stuffed down the back of wardrobes. There’s stuff in bags; stuff collecting not just dust, but weird damp residue; stuff buried under more stuff.
I frequently think of my life as a never-ending race, in which I am up against the man I should be for the prize of the life I desire. I hold the sharper mind, but carry a permanent injury, so I mostly remain two steps behind. Occasionally I may draw level, thanks to a combination of sheer bloody mindedness and support from others, without which I would undoubtedly fall even further behind.
It’s the middle of the night. I’ve just woken from a bad dream. In it, three lynxes in the garden of my childhood home are chasing my parents’ scrawny runt of a cat. He makes it to the safety of the kitchen, where I’m sitting cross-legged on the floor, and leaps onto my lap. The lynxes paw at the cat flap, but can’t get through.
I own an animal that will live longer than anyone I know. She will outlive the next generation and the generation after that. When you buy a tortoise, no one tells you how much you will think about death. But when you have something living in your house that will outlive you by a century, mortality hangs in the air.
You’ve been gone so long now that the time we spent together almost feels like a lie. Although, on certain days, I swear you’re still here, a nightlight to ease my febrile brain. And, as an echo of your memory floods my mind, once again you illuminate the darkness with a warning and a promise… “DO NOT SLEEP” But it’s just a dream.
I have this fantasy for the future. It involves moving far, far away from the city, dropping my job as a writer and ditching my musical career. I keep my husband though... My fantasy for a rural, simple future is considered grossly basic in my peer group, because educated, feminist women like myself are supposed to want more.