A stray in Virginia

‘Where are you going?’ asked my mother.

‘Out,’ I said between gritted teeth. No matter how old and sophisticated you think you are, there’s nothing like a question from your mom to show you what a sulky adolescent you still remain.

‘Don’t get left behind!’ she called anxiously after me.

We were on a cruise ship on the east coast of America, on our way to the Caribbean. I love my mother and I love cruise ships but I needed to get the hell off that ship and be alone.

It wasn’t only that I was suddenly spending 24 hours a day with my mom, it’s also that a chap travelling with his mother attracts a lot of goodwill on a cruise ship. All the other passengers feel free to stop by and strike up conversation, as though they think, ‘Say, this guy seems to like his mom; that must mean he likes all irritating old people.’ (Not that my mom is irritating, I should add, in case she’s reading this.)

I walked down the gangway into Norfolk, Virginia. Norfolk is a quiet old colonial town with nothing much to do. There’s a house where George Washington once stayed, and a church with a cannonball in its wall from a British bombardment, but I just wanted to walk the quiet Sunday streets and hear distant church bells and not have to smile or talk.

Within one block I ran into a couple from the ship.

‘Say, where’s your mom?’ he hailed heartily.

‘We’re going to the market, want to join us?’ she cooed like a turtle dove.

I waved and muttered and ducked down a side street. I had that feeling we all sometimes feel while travelling. Perhaps we feel it at home too, but travelling makes it more keen: that sense of being alone, surrounded by people we don’t understand and who don’t understand us – the only human in a world of aliens, or maybe the other way round.

I wandered lost down backstreets and cobbled lanes, listening to my own footsteps. But wait a minute, where’s the ship from here? What time does it sail? What’s the time now? I don’t wear a watch and didn’t have a phone. I looked around, but there was no one to ask.

I came upon a large white building with a sign: Chrysler Museum of Art. Maybe someone inside would help me.

I wandered up unattended marble stairs and drifted through empty echoing galleries. I passed a Velázquez and a Gauguin, Matisse and Edward Hopper, perfectly alone. Through the windows the sky darkened with dusk. It was like an uneasy dream.

And then I stopped dead in front of one painting in particular. It was ‘The Neophyte’, by Gustav Doré. A young monk on his first night in the monastery sits in a row of other monks, all old men, haggard, their youth dried to sorrow and parchment. He has just realised what he has let himself in for – a lifetime of this – and he faces the viewer in dawning horror.

He looked straight at me and we recognised each other, and I felt a burning connection with that young monk, with the man who painted him, with all the humans that lived before and since, connecting us all in a long chain of fellow-feeling. I went out into the blue Virginia dusk and found the ship, its windows lit yellow like a castle across a snowy valley.

‘Welcome back,’ said a steward as I boarded.

I looked around at the shipful of people with their different shapes and faces, the friends I’d already made, the people yet to meet, my mother upstairs, my fellow human beings.

‘I’m glad to be here,’ I said.

Getaway, 29 Feb 2016