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Comfortably Numb

 

David pushed the door open with his foot and walked into the brightly lit hall. Trying hard to keep the pizza box upright he dropped his briefcase on the floor and kicked it under the table. Leaning momentarily against the door, he acknowledged how utterly exhausted he was. It was 10.30 PM and his whole body ached. Surely there was a law against working such long hours? All the lights in the house were on but a cursory glance around signalled that neither of his housemates were back. Walking to the kitchen, he opened the fridge for a beer. Shuffling around cartons and packets to extract one at the back, he noticed several items were past their sell by date. Muttering under his breath, he kicked open the bin and dropped them in one by one in disgust.

 

As he cracked open the beer, David felt a sudden, unexpected stab of melancholy. He wished his girlfriend were here. In fact, he wished they could just move in together. Most of his friends were getting married and it made him feel nervous. Was Catriona the right one? They’d only been together for six months, but surely they’d only know if they lived together.

 

He deposited the pizza on to a plate, walked through to the living room and, picking up the controls from the top of the TV, turned and sank into the comfy sofa and pressed the remote. A nature programme – flick. A reality show about warring neighbours – flick. A cringey American sitcom – flick. A documentary on some climate change theme – flick. And channel five which was always fuzzy. He settled for the documentary and switched it to mute. There was something about watching people’s lips moving with no sound that he found strangely compelling and relaxing, particularly if listening to the right kind of music. Picking up another remote control he clicked the CD player on and braced himself for whatever music was in there. Pink Floyd. Perfect. ‘Hello? Is there anybody in there? Just nod if you can hear me.’

 

Pulling cheese off the pizza slice with his teeth, David watched as the screen cut to a man with large dark eyes mouthing silent words, constantly turning and pointing to the a handful of skinny animals and dry landscape behind him. He watched the screen, thinking about Catriona and their holiday coming up.

 

My name is David. I am a pastoralist and I come from the Turkhana District of Kenya. I keep cows, goats, camels. My father was a pastoralist and my grandfather. In fact, I come from a long line of them. I don’t even know if anyone in my family has ever done anything else. Until several years ago we coped just fine. It’s never been an easy life but we have years of experience behind us. But the past years there has been severe drought and herds of our livestock have been completely wiped out.

 

This was probably one of David’s favourite Pink Floyd songs ever written. ‘There is no pain you are receding, A distant ship, smoke on the horizon.’

 

 What time was it? He glanced at his mobile – 10:50 PM. Why hadn’t Catriona called? She normally rang most nights around quarter to eleven if they weren’t together. He’d booked a surprise long weekend for the two of them to New York. Shoveling a piece of salami into his mouth, he couldn’t suppress a grin. She was going to love it. He’d been several times before, but for Catriona it’d be a first. The energy and powerful surge of the city made him feel more alive there than anywhere else on earth.

 

In past years we had droughts every so often, but now the drought comes year after year. In the parts of Turkana where I live this latest drought is called “Atiaktiak ng’awiyei”, which means “the one that divided homes”. It is called so because many families had to split up to survive and many people have had to migrate to different countries; to the cities; to relief camps.

 

What would he show her in New York? She’d want to do some shopping along Fifth and Madison Avenues, there was Central Park of course, Ellis Island, a show on Broadway perhaps and so many amazing restaurants and bars to choose from.

 

This drought has dried everything up. Everything. We never know when the next rain will come. Before, even in the longest drought rain would come occasionally to some places. We could tell from nature when it was coming. But now it’s impossible to predict and if it does ever arrive it is violent and we can’t keep livestock in these conditions. We need help, but the government is doing nothing for us. Many people have died, and many, many more animals.

 

He’d booked them into a plush hotel he’d stayed in once or twice before overlooking Central Park. Last time he was there he would go and buy the paper and the most delicious fresh bagels from a small café in the corner of the park and sit there watching the world go by. Now he had someone to share it with. David closed his eyes. The child is grown, the dream has gone, I have become comfortably numb. She had beautiful hair, Catriona. Dark brown with a gentle auburn tinge which you could only see in a certain light. Was he falling in love with her? Both his housemates joked that it was just lust but at least she was better than the last one. No. No, it was more than lust.

 

Even Lake Turkhana is much smaller than it used to be. Also, a lot more cattle raiding goes on now. Because there have been so many cattle deaths, people are desperate. Many people are starving. Violence is increasing all the time between people. I am constantly in fear that my wife, my children will be taken when I am not at home during the day.

 

The phone rang, jolting David out of his reverie. He glanced at the TV screen. The man with the mournful eyes was still mouthing until he receded into the background and credits began to appear. With a sigh, he hit the off button on the remote control.

Looking down at his mobile, he smiled as Catriona’s name flashed up. ‘Hey, Cat, how are you? It’s late for you to call.’

 

‘Hi, I know. I got caught up watching a climate change documentary. I started watching it because the guy being interviewed had the same name as you, but then I got totally absorbed.’

 

‘Oh, yeah, I’ve had that on too.’ David wet his finger and dabbed at the pizza crumbs on his plate.

‘Have you? Unbelievable, isn’t it?’

 

‘Mmm.’

 

‘It’s so scary, global warming. I just don’t think I’ve ever given it enough thought before. But my god, after watching that, thinking that the way we live our lives here is actually having a direct effect on people from places like that – ‘

 

‘Well, I don’t know about that.’

 

‘Of course it is, didn’t you hear what they were talking about?’

 

David sighed in irritation. This was the last thing he wanted to be discussing with Catriona. ‘All I’m saying is you can’t believe everything you watch on TV. Anyway, Cat, about our holiday…I need you to pack some warm clothes.’

 

‘What?’

 

‘Well, it can be quite cold where we’re going in the autumn.’

 

‘David, we’re not going abroad are we?’

 

‘Of course we are.’ He was trying hard to keep the impatience from his voice.

 

There was a long silence and David fiddled with the empty beer can. ‘What is it, Cat?’

 

‘I’m just thinking…I’m just thinking, after watching this programme, I’m not sure I want to fly abroad for a weekend. It all feels quite – ’

 

‘Quite what?’

 

‘Extravagant and not to mention un-environmentally friendly.’

 

David felt himself heating up. What on earth was she talking about? ‘Since when have you given a damn about the environment?’

 

There was another long pause and he started to wonder if she’d hung up. ‘Hello?’

 

‘Yes,’ Catriona said coldly. ‘I’m still here. That’s very unfair of you to say that. Actually, I do give a damn about the environment and so should you.’

 

David didn’t like the way this conversation was going. God, she could be stroppy sometimes, but he knew the best thing to do was try and appease her. ‘Okay, okay, perhaps I should. But listen Cat, about the holiday – ’

 

‘No, you listen, David. Why are you so non-committal all the time about important issues like this?’

 

‘I can’t believe you watch one programme on TV and you’re suddenly Miss smug environmentalist.’

 

‘That’s not fair.’

 

David had risen to his feet and was pacing the living room. ‘But how can it be fair that I spend ages planning a nice weekend away for the two of us and pay for it and you suddenly decide you don’t want to go anymore.’

 

He heard a long, weary sigh echoing down the phone. ‘Look,’ said Catriona. ‘The holiday’s not the issue anymore.’

 

‘What are you talking about?’

 

‘Well…sometimes I just don’t understand why you’re not a bit more feeling about things.’

 

‘What on earth do you mean by that?’

 

‘Political convictions – few. The war in Iraq – no opinion. Global warming – no opinion. You’re just so…so apathetic sometimes. Just think about it, David. Look, I’m going to go. Let’s talk again tomorrow.’

 

David had broken out in a sweat. He furrowed his brow and was stared furiously into the empty TV screen.

 

‘David, are you alright?’

 

‘Hmm.’

 

‘I’m sorry, but it had to be said. I’ll speak to you tomorrow.’

 

And that was it, she was gone. For God’s sake, what was wrong with her? He’d paid all this money so they could have a fantastic weekend in New York and this was how she was responding. Some gratitude. David turned and looked at the empty plate covered with pizza crusts on the sofa, the empty beer can lying on its side on the floor and felt another sudden stab of melancholy. He knew he should go to bed but he’d never be able to sleep in this mood. He needed cheering up. Again, he pressed play on the CD remote control and leant heavily against the bookcase as the words washed over him. Hello? Is there anybody in there? Just nod if you can hear me. Is there anyone at home?

 

He heard the key turn in the front door and one of his housemates sauntered in, whistling.

 

‘Alright Dave?’ There was a pause. ‘You okay?’

 

‘Yes, why?’

 

‘Nothing, you just look a little…annoyed.’

 

‘I’m fine.’

 

‘I’ve just been round at Jack’s house watching Panorama. Did you see it?’

 

David clenched his teeth and walked back to the sofa. His mobile flashed up incoming text message. ‘Yes.’

 

‘Pretty shocking wasn’t it?’

 

David sat down, his back to his housemate. ‘Yes,’ he responded again wearily.

 

‘Anyway mate, I’m going to hit the sack. I’m shattered. Night.’

 

‘Night,’ David mumbled. He closed his eyes as he listened to the energetic steps of his housemate bounding up to his room. ‘Oh, Dave’ he called from the top of the stairs.

 

‘Mmm?’

 

‘I think we should try and do more recycling.’

 

David didn’t say anything. He opened his eyes again and stared ahead of him in disbelief. The music suddenly sounded louder than he wanted it to be. You are only coming through in waves. Your lips move but I can't hear what you're saying.

 

‘Night then,’ his housemate called before he heard his door closing. What the hell had got into everyone tonight? He sunk into the crook of the sofa, letting it support his exhausted frame. Reaching for his mobile, he checked the message. Catriona. ‘Sorry if I offended you. Put the TV on – BBC2. C x’

 

David sighed. He really needed to go to bed. He looked beside him on the sofa for the remote control. Where the hell had it gone? He stood up, irritated, turned the music off then walked to the television and pushed the on button as it whirred to life. He switched channels to BBC2 and sat on the floor in front of the television. Newsnight. A large red band kept moving across the screen containing the words Breaking News. David turned the volume up manually…devastating floods in half a century. Bangladesh is prone to flooding but reports are coming in that deaths are expected to be in their hundreds with many thousands of people displaced. British aid agencies are already on their way to the affected areas. The prime minister of Bangladesh has issued a damning attack on developed nations on not doing enough to tackle climate change, stating that these floods are yet another direct effect of global warming on the people of his country, many of whom are already…

David reached over and turned the television off. He couldn’t remember the last time he felt so low, both physically and mentally. Was there something wrong with him? Perhaps Catriona was right, perhaps he was apathetic. But he was a good, law-abiding citizen, wasn’t he? Wasn’t that what was important? He paid his bills on time, he didn’t drop litter on the street, he took his girlfriend out for dinner, and he visited his grandparents every so often. Of course he felt bad for all those people who were suffering as a result of global warming. But how could that possibly be his fault? As he rose unsteadily to his feet, he suddenly saw those large dark eyes of the man standing in front of his painfully thin cattle and wandered what it was exactly that he’d said that had got Catriona and his housemate so worked up. As he walked up the stairs to his bedroom, he made himself a silent vow. He could find the documentary online and tomorrow he would watch it after work. Yes, that’s what he would do and then he would debate it with Catriona and his housemate. David liked this girl; he didn’t want to lose her. He would not be apathetic anymore…

 

It was too late to think about these things. He just wanted to go to bed, sleep deeply and purge the song that was spinning round his head… The child is grown, The dream is gone, I have become comfortably numb.