GEORGE Thring ran away from home. By accident. It happened like this.
ON a crisp February Tuesday evening, as a heavy orange sun hung low in the sky and the cool, grey dusk settled down around the buildings and houses, blanketing them like a soft, warm duvet, George Thring drove straight past his own house.
He left his office at the usual time; took his usual route home from work, which took as long as it usually took; and he turned into the street where he lived at the usual time. Yet as he neared his house, instead of turning into the small, grey, rectangular driveway where he usually parked his car – for some reason his foot stayed on the accelerator, his hands held the steering wheel straight and he drove past his little house and right out the other end of the street.
Actually, it was not unusual for George to do this. Every now and again, whilst sitting in his little grey car on the way home from another particularly unsatisfying day in his particularly unsatisfying job, George would find himself thinking. He’d think about all the things he’d done that day: all the people he’d spoken with; the various tedious events that had taken place and he would just sort of drift off. Lost in a fog of contemplation, his autopilot would take over and he would just drive and drive, oblivious to the world around him.
The first time it happened George had naturally been quite concerned. He’d driven out of the office car park; found himself thinking about something and nothing; drifting off into a melancholy fog and pootling along at an average speed. When he finally came round – that’s what he’d come to call it as that’s the only way he could rationalise it, as if he’d fallen into a dream and suddenly woken up – he was 27 miles from home, doing 67mph down the motorway.
He’d had to carry on for five minutes until the nearest junction, turn himself around and then he’d finally gotten home an hour and a half late. Not that he was really late, as such, as he had no real plans to speak of other than watching the usual drivel on TV and eating his dinner. But he was later than he would usually be.
It had certainly troubled him: how his mind had gotten swamped and his body had simply carried on driving, swooping him up out of his life and whisking him away on a strange little adventure.
He’d been worried enough to think about going to the doctor. It couldn’t be normal, after all, getting lost in a cloud of thought and driving without realising it. So perhaps he ought to get his head checked. But, then, he’d heard horror stories about that type of thing. You’d go to the doctor complaining of funny dreams or insomnia, or some mild complaint, and before you knew it they’d have you on anti-depressants, talking to a counsellor about your problems once a week and keeping a journal of your dreams.
And that was just the mild cases. If they thought there was something really wrong with you, the men in white coats would be round quick-smart, helping you into the fancy jacket with the buckles round the back and whisking you off to your own luxury padded fun-house.
So, just in case there was something seriously psychologically wrong with him, George thought it was probably safer to remain tight-lipped and simply hope for the best.
The eventful evening blackouts and strange psychological mystery tours continued, on and off. He could never tell when they were likely to strike. He would simply leave work, set off in his car and hope to get home sooner rather than later. There seemed to be no rhyme nor reason as to when they’d occur; he’d just find himself halfway down some country lane, caught in rush-hour traffic on a mysterious ring road or, as on one occasion, parked up in somebody else’s drive in a completely unknown town – much to the consternation of the middle-aged woman who’d stood staring at George from her kitchen window, holding up a rolling pin to demonstrate that she was armed and not scared to use it.
On average it happened once or twice a month, and each time George found himself slightly further from home. Once he’d driven for 47 minutes in the wrong direction before suddenly realising where he was. It had then taken him a full hour and a half to navigate his way back, meaning it finally took nearly three hours just to get home from work. He was so tired when he eventually got through the front door that he just had a cheese sandwich for dinner and went to bed. Which turned out to be a bad idea, because the cheese gave him a rather disturbing dream about drowning in strawberry yoghurt.
And so George drove on. Thinking about his day and getting further and further from home.
On this particular day George had filed away files; answered phones; written reports; updated his spreadsheets; and, tried to muster up some enthusiasm for the data he was supposed to be analysing. And, when that failed, he just analysed the data anyway.
George had read 102 emails that he didn’t want to read and replied to 37 e-mails he didn’t really want to reply to. He’d purposely left the replies slightly longer than he should have, partly so that he’d look busier than he really was and partly because he knew that the person expecting the reply would be getting irate and frustrated at his tardiness.
He had checked the clock one hundred and thirty-seven times and each time had been mildly disappointed that it was earlier than he had hoped it to be.
George had thought about quitting his job and going off to write a novel. He had then decided that he’d probably just get bored doing that as well.
He’d had sexual thoughts about Paula Tredcott from accounts. He had then spent a painfully embarrassing four minutes and thirty-two seconds clamped in behind his desk, silently willing an unwanted erection, protruding very obviously in his trousers to “please, for the love of God, go away before anybody sees”.
George had secretively surfed the internet looking for answers to the crossword he couldn’t quite finish. He had then gone for a pointless five-minute walk around the building in order to stretch his legs and to waste five minutes of the day.
He had drifted off into a daydream whilst waiting for the automatic drinks machine to dispense his cup of watery coffee, briefly imagining how he would react should a giant lizard have broken in through the wall and started gobbling people up at random. He imagined himself flying into action: ripping off his shirt; tying his tie Rambo-style around his head; and leaping at the beast with nothing to protect him but a shatterproof ruler and a hole-punch – a modern day superhero, sure to have the women swooning at his heroism.
He then decided that in reality he would probably not have been heroic at all and likely would have merely run away and hidden under a table.
His watery coffee had come out in the surprising form of weak tomato soup. He contemplated drinking it anyway, then thought better of it and left it on the side in case someone else fancied it. He returned two minutes later and placed a Post-it note next to the cup. It said: ‘Free Tomato Soup. It was supposed to be coffee. I did not spit in it.’
George had sat in front of his computer, getting irate and frustrated at the length of time it took some people to reply to his e-mails.
George had spoken to Linda (the Business Services Administration Manager and also his boss’s boss’s boss) or, rather, Linda had spoken at him about the annual company barbeque he hated going to each year but had to attend as it was a mandatory team-building exercise. She had explained that she was far too busy to organise the event this year so she was delegating the task to him. Which would have to be done in his spare time, to prevent him from falling behind with his daily reports. Apparently George’s Team Leader, Anton, had volunteered him for the task knowing that he would be unable to say no and hoping it might reflect well on him in retrospect.
George had drunk seven cups of coffee (having figured out that to achieve coffee from the machine he had to push the button marked ‘Still Lemon Drink’). This was more coffee than he suspected was good for him but lately it was the only thing that kept him from getting too drowsy in the afternoon. He’d then read a report on the internet about how too much caffeine was bad for you and worried about the effect that each and every sip of those seven cups was having on him.
George had spent several minutes thinking about the task of organising the barbeque and wondering whether a broken limb would be sufficient excuse for passing the planning on to someone else. He then thought about all the ways in which he could conceivably break an arm or a leg, and the pain and complications that would no doubt be involved. He remembered the scene from ‘Escape To Victory’, where one plucky young lad agreed to have his arm broken on purpose so that Sylvester Stallone could play in goal. He remembered it looking particularly painful.
And broken arms didn’t always end only with broken bones, did they? Couldn’t the veins and arteries also get damaged? One could conceivably set out purposely to break a limb so as to get out of some dreaded task, and end up with major complications leading to internal bleeding, the loss of a limb, or even death. These sorts of things happen all the time on television.
George decided that he was probably going to have to organise this year’s company barbeque after all.
George had spent a very bored thirty minutes in an exceedingly warm, dry meeting room, trying to stay awake through a particularly dull meeting about statistical analysis, again imagining the giant lizards crashing in through the wall and gobbling up his superiors. Under these circumstances, George knew he definitely wouldn’t have leapt to their defence.
He had taken his usual 20-minute mid-morning ‘sit-down’ in the toilet. For lunch he ate a disappointing ham salad sandwich, a bag of salt and vinegar crisps, an apple and a bottle of orange Lucozade.
This was all pretty standard for George. A very usual day indeed. And as he continued to drive, going nowhere in particular and not even really noticing that he was still driving, George started to think about all the things that he hadn’t done that day.
For example, George hadn’t sent an e-mail round the office telling everyone just how much he hated the annual team building barbeque that he was forced to attend each year and, as it had fallen to him to organise it this year, he had decided that he was cancelling the event, to save everybody the tedium of attending and instead would be dividing equally the allotted funds from petty cash between each member of the office – £11.63 each – and letting them decide for themselves what they wanted to do with it.
He hadn’t been given the pay rise he’d been expecting ‘any day now’ for the last six months. He hadn’t stormed into his boss’s office and told him to stick his job up his bum, then marched out of the building to the rapturous chorus of his fellow employees’ approval.
George hadn’t had a passionate encounter with Paula Tredcott from accounts in the third floor stationery cupboard. He had thought about it: imagined the feel of her hot breath on his neck; her hands running through his hair; her lips on his lips. He’d even imagined the discomfort of the racking pressed into his back and the dull pain in his left buttock as each thrust pushed him back against a freshly-sharpened box of HB pencils. He’d thought about it, but he hadn’t done it.
He hadn’t been quite brave enough to try the exotic sounding brie, bacon and tomato sandwich he often saw on the shelf at the local sandwich shop – and always quite liked the sound of – so instead stuck with the safe, disappointing option of his usual ham salad.
When Linda from Statistical Configuring had stormed over to his desk and demanded a very important set of figures by the end of the day, he didn’t tell her how much he wanted to poke her in the eye with a rusty fork.
He hadn’t poked Linda in the eye with a rusty fork.
These were not unusual things for George to think about. He often considered the things he hadn’t done that day, and wondered why he hadn’t done them. He wondered what might have happened if he had done them. And as he lost himself in a dreamy world of ‘what ifs’ and ‘maybes’, thinking about all the things he could have done, and should have done, and might well do if he ever worked up the nerve, he invariably drove past his own house.
Naturally, George had wondered what might be causing these ‘blackouts’. Of course he’d Googled it, triple-checked Wikipedia and surfed various medical websites. Having read through countless pages online and created a number of fanciful self-diagnoses, George had decided the closest match seemed to be something called a ‘Dissociative Fugue State’.
Apparently, sufferers of Dissociative Fugue can lose their sense of personal identity and have been known to wander impulsively or travel away from their homes or places of work. Although George didn’t think he had any problems with his sense of identity – he knew who he was: boring old George Thring – the impulsive travel certainly seemed to be a good fit.
In most cases, ‘episodes’ were triggered by a traumatic event. Again, George had trouble thinking of any traumatic events in his life – not since that time at the wildlife park and that had been so long ago that it couldn’t be a cause. George’s life now was so unexciting that the ‘tomato soup’ incident was about as traumatic as things got. And he was sure he had enough mental fortitude to cope with something like that without flipping out and driving halfway to Wales.
Deep down, George wondered whether there might be another cause for his random, unplanned journeys. He simply did not want to go home.
Sometimes he just couldn’t face the echo round the cold walls of his house as the key scraped in the lock. He couldn’t bear walking into a dark, empty house with no-one to greet him and ask about his day, kiss him lightly on the cheek and tell him dinner was nearly ready. No kids’ hair to ruffle and no homework to be helped with. Only a small, empty flat; a fridge full of unappetising food; and a television to talk at him from the corner of the room. And so sometimes George would just drive, subconsciously putting off the inevitable.
But it was more than the empty house. How can a man go home and be satisfied with his life when he is so full of regret at the simple things he hasn’t done in a day? How could he walk through his front door, sit on his sofa and pretend that his life was adequate; that he wasn’t dreaming deep down in his heart that he were somebody else, doing something different, living somebody else’s life?
So George would drive past his house and just carry on driving. Secretly, he liked the soothing nature of it all; the way his mind could drift off; the subconscious way his body would take over the driving. His feet on the pedals; his hands on the steering wheel; his eyes watching the road; all seemingly separate entities from his brain. His arm somehow simply knew to change gear at the right time, without George’s brain having to tell it. The body would drive the car, leaving George with plenty of time to sit and contemplate; to ponder and wonder and not really have to think too hard about his surroundings or his place among them.
He liked the gentle rumble of the tyres on the road; the soft deep hum of the engine; the warm air blowing slowly from the vents on the dashboard. He liked the calming nature of it: how it cocooned him from the world; the gentle heartbeat of the car carefully rocking and soothing him; like some kind of psychological return to the womb – if you wanted to think of it in those terms, which George never did because that all seemed a bit deep and involved and it made him think of a new-born baby all covered in blood and sticky stuff, which made him feel uncomfortable and a little bit queasy.
It didn’t matter where George drove to – whether he got stuck in traffic on a busy dual carriageway or cruised effortlessly along a scenic country lane – he would just drive. Drive and think, and try to come to terms with his life. He would reconcile his day in his head, with all the disappointments and lost opportunities, and make a secret pact with himself that tomorrow would not be such a disappointing day. He would definitely do the things he wanted to do and not end the day driving past his own house thinking about all the day’s disappointments. “Carpe Diem,” he would recite to himself, like some demented mantra.
“Seize the Day, George,” he would order himself, staring into the eyes reflected in the rear view mirror. “Be bold, George. Be bold and brave, and make things happen.”
And then the ‘episode’ would end. He’d turn the car around and go home satisfied that tomorrow would be better. It would be the tomorrow that George deserved.
Either that, or he would suddenly realise that he was actually very hungry and he should probably eat something soon because he didn’t want to get low blood sugar levels and pass out at the wheel and accidentally plough into a group of girl scouts on a hike or something. So he’d better go home and have a spot of dinner and think more about things a bit later on. Except he’d go home, have some dinner, get stuck in front of the television and completely lose his train of thought. Until he was driving home again the next day.
But this was no ordinary day. For as George drove past his house, as he had done so many times before, he started to think of lots of other things he hadn’t done that day. He started to think about how he hadn’t taught anybody how to scuba dive that day. For that matter, he hadn’t learned how to scuba dive himself.
He hadn’t gone to a bullfight, nor had he gone on an international treasure hunt. He hadn’t made a killing on the stock market. He hadn’t killed another person – though he had to admit that he was actually quite glad about that because he probably wouldn’t have wanted to kill another person, not without a really good reason anyway. But nevertheless it was another thing he hadn’t done.
He thought about the fact that he hadn’t eaten the biggest hamburger in the world, or the tastiest piece of cherry pie. He hadn’t run off with the circus to become a lion tamer – though again George thought this probably a wise move as he wasn’t really that fond of any animals, let alone the type likely to bite your head off should you stick it into their mouth.
And, of course, there was that other business with the lion when he was just a boy, that he didn’t like to dwell upon.
He hadn’t bought a motorbike. He hadn’t bought a sofa.
George hadn’t eaten five Mars bars in a row. He hadn’t set off the fire alarm for a prank. He hadn’t gone to the pet shop at lunch, bought 20 hamsters and let them loose in the office, causing mass hamster-related panic. He hadn’t taken all his clothes off, painted his willy blue and run through the office shouting, “Help, I’m being attacked by a Smurf!”
It seemed to George that there were a great many things that he hadn’t done that day. Yet the more things he thought of, the more came, until he felt like he was trapped in a great whirlwind of ideas, crashing, whizzing, zooming and spinning around him in his tiny little car.
And as George continued to think about all the things he hadn’t done that day, he carried on driving, getting further and further from his house. A house that, for whatever reason, had disappeared completely from his mind. And, most unusual of all, George didn’t even feel the slightest bit hungry.