Some people are impressionable by nature. They find it difficult to have a thought or opinion of their own, so soak up unfiltered ideas from those around them, or increasingly from anonymous on-line voices. And in the absence of their own mark, they’re the sort of people that others look through, rather than at.
Ron was just such a person, always following the crowd and drifting through life on a current not of his own choosing or making. The current carried him to a desert island of mediocrity in everything: his job as an accounts assistant; his one-bedroomed apartment on the unfashionable side of town; his lack of a significant other; his lack of any significant friends; his lack of a life, essentially.
And his lack of any personality to speak of. He’d see hipsters in the street wearing beards and trilby hats and would make a bee-line for the nearest hat shop and leave off shaving. Halfway through his beard project he’d come across a magazine photo of a clean-shaven sports-star surrounded by adoring women, and his beard-in-progress would be off. Then he’d take up gym to try to emulate the sports star’s physique, but he’d catch a news report on TV about a man who was so obsessed by body-building that he ballooned to twice his natural size and then died of a heart attack. So the gym would be kicked into touch.
As one might expect, Ron was also a slave to routine. Up in the morning at 6.30 (not a minute sooner or later), shower, shave and breakfast, always in that order. Clothes on (ironed the night before), gas off, door double locked, down to the station in time for the 7.42 to the city. A seat two carriages from the back, as near as possible to the leggy woman who took the same train and who figured almost obsessively in his thoughts and dreams. He called her ‘Laura’.
But having a routine doesn’t in and of itself make you unhappy necessarily. Indeed, Ron felt more or less content with life and not unhappy at all; rather, he was unaware. Unaware of how objectively humdrum his life was, and unaware that there was anything more exciting out there beyond his circle of experience. One summer evening, though, something happened – something big.
As usual, he was strolling from the office to the station to catch the train home. He liked to look above the height of the pavement – at the architecture of a building’s façade, into office windows or the bedrooms of terraced houses, up into the trees to try to spot whichever bird was singing, up at the clouds edging their way across the bright summer blueness.
On this particular evening he dropped his gaze at one point – he didn’t know why – and there, just metres away and gliding towards him, was Laura. She was wearing a short skirt and Ron spontaneously remarked to himself how very long and shapely her legs really were. But what caught Ron’s eye more was the T-shirt she had on, which he didn’t remember seeing on the train that morning.
The T-shirt was as rich a blue as the one providing the heavenly background to the clouds – very fetching on Laura, with her dark hair and brown eyes – and emblazoned on the front was the legend:
You Only Live ONCE!
The whole package – Laura, her legs, the blue, the message – stopped Ron dead in his tracks. She brushed past him on the pavement, oblivious to her secret admirer’s presence, but left behind her a final element that tied his heartstrings up in a double bow: her scent of roses and lollipops and rain after a dry spell – at least those were the things that flashed through his mind in the waft of her passing.
Ron stood in the middle of the pavement, rocking slightly, as if he’d been buffeted by a rushing stream of passers-by. One or two concerned people stopped, half considering whether to help him or not, but before they could approach he snapped out of it and continued on his way, albeit unsteadily. His heart was pounding like a steam-pump and he really didn’t feel so good.
He was still in a daze when he opened his front door, entered and dropped his keys on the small table in the hall. He wasn’t a heavy drinker but this evening he went straight to the living room, grabbed a bottle of whisky and a glass from the drinks cabinet and flopped down on the sofa.
He poured himself a sizeable shot and downed it in one. He poured himself another and leaned back; the vision of Laura was seared into his brain. He took a gulp from his glass and enjoyed the scene once again, this time in his mind’s eye. And then it hit him. You Only Live ONCE! You Only Live ONCE! Of course! Perhaps it was the drink, but suddenly it was like the scales had fallen from his eyes.
His life was no great shakes, was it? He didn’t have a social life to speak of, did he? He did want to meet Laura, didn’t he? No, no and a big ‘YES’. Think, Ron. Think! And so he started making plans.
The next day was going to be the first day of the rest of his life, and the first job would be to introduce himself to Laura. He’d get talking to her on the train, find out her real name, give her his number, invite her out for dinner. They’d go out for increasingly amorous evenings. He had some savings, so he’d take her on a romantic holiday, and when the moment was right, he’d propose. He’d give up the office job, set up a firm, and work for himself to provide for their three children. You absolutely only live ONCE, and he’d work from now on to cram as much as he could into his – their – life.
With the framework of his new existence established in his mind, Ron topped up his glass and set about filling in the details: his opening gambit to get talking to her, her name (which would actually be Laura), the slip of paper he’d prepare beforehand with his number on it, the telephone conversation in which he’d invite her out, the Italian restaurant and his gentlemanly insistence on paying, a distant phone ringing, the holiday in Paris, the proposal on the Champs Elysees with a very tasteful diamond ring (which he’d have to save for), the wedding in a pretty village church with the reception in … hang on …
… A distant phone ringing? Ron opened his eyes to the living room ceiling, lit by the sunlight streaming through the window, his mouth thick with a night’s sleep. He half turned and saw that he was on the sofa still; the ringing was coming from his lower body. He patted his trousers and found his mobile phone: his boss. Where was he? Didn’t he know there was a vital departmental meeting that morning? He’d better get in pronto. And they’d need to have a talk later – a serious talk.
Ron staggered off the sofa and rushed to the bathroom, where he spent the next ten minutes hugging the toilet bowl. He had a very quick shower and a shave but decided to forego breakfast; there was just no time. He ran to the station and managed to catch the 9.42 to the city.
Laura was not on the train, naturally, and in her absence, the future that Ron had created for them, and the brief burst of courage that he’d found within himself, dissipated as the train trundled towards the city.
Yes, he mused, glumly observing the familiar, grey terraced houses lining the tracks: you only live once. But sadly – and now he was aware – the life he’d be living once would most probably be this one.