Nothing Going, by Sarah Aylett

Chelsea was lonely in the living room of her rented flatshare, and loneliness, as discovered by genius and idiot for millennia, was conducive to paranoia. In her case it manifested as a kind of sombre retrospective of what had so far (she thought) been a middling life, amplified by the middling lives of those around her. She could think of no one who was spared from this analysis: not her middle-class parents, separated for years but for whom the official classification of divorce was somehow impractical or somehow undesirable or both; not her classmates who at best made jokes about fucking and “the shits” with the aplomb of a stand-up comedian and at worst expected you to take their personal problems with something resembling seriousness; and certainly not her partner (“partners in crime,” they’d labelled their relationship in those first few weeks, and which in her sombre retrospective filled her at once with great sadness and greater disgust) who quite literally couldn’t find the clit and who’d given up the hunt entirely after reading that cunnilingus had proven links to throat cancer. Thinking these thoughts, Chelsea’s paranoia spread.

She was slouched on the sofa and the flat was empty. The Easter holidays had started what now seemed an indeterminable time ago and her two flatmates had left the premises, presumably to visit their families. Chelsea had considered committing a similarly touching act of familial solidarity – even if this solidarity had to be divided across two or more separate trips – until she realised she had absolutely no reason to do so. This lack of reason, of which she was convinced, was not the same as a lack of desire, which she denied. The issue was simply that she was approaching the end of her second year at university, that there was nothing to report, no significant news to relay and to which neither parent could offer commentary beyond such remarks as “keep going” and “nearly there.” The emptiness of these hypothesised utterances was secondary to the root problem they implied: that at present there was a distinct lack of progress in Chelsea’s life, proof of an ongoing reality synonymous with middling.

Her thoughts didn’t extend to the fear of failure, a possibility that had long since ceased to strike her as such. This was perhaps another facet of her present listlessness and unease, for in being so easily able to imagine herself living the life of, say, her mother, she was forced to admit that the more off-beat fantasies that had dominated her recent girlhood would remain firmly in the realm of fiction, then, now and forever. Paranoia followed, exploding or imploding in ways both idiotic and ingenious but which all led to the same sense of persecution that in turn made Chelsea feel twice her age and the failure she was sure she’d never be. There were hundreds of threads to follow, each of a paradoxically identical significance – the future plans she’d outlined to her cherished English teacher of college years remained in her mind as vital as the quiet boy she’d smiled at and spoken to on the back of a bus when she was thirteen, and to whom she’d ever since wanted to prove she was more than just a random, pubescent flirt – and each leading to the same bitter conclusions, namely that the youthful ideals she’d projected on each situation and person didn’t match up to the projected direction of her maturity.

The question that followed was simple, and had turned into a theme that, without her always recognising it, had gone on to dominate her life, unless this, too, was only a symptom of paranoia. Regardless, she found herself thinking about what others thought, if they thought at all, which she admitted was a distinct improbability; regardless, these thoughts were entwined with her own, and even when she was sure the minds of others were clear, her mind was filled with the doubts and regrets typical of someone with enough time and security to consider them. In such moments, the sense of persecution led her to a resentment not of those around her, but herself. There was nothing on the horizon that allowed her to believe the course of her life would be altered – she recognised the solidification of her character with the fascination of a theory confirmed and the horror of a paradise lost – and what remained was the gentle and involuntary slipping into a role she’d witnessed and hoped against in the thousands of strangers she’d passed through streets and newsfeeds in earlier times: the role of being just like anyone else, and worse yet, of accepting the fact.

Even now, on that sofa in the living room of her empty flatshare, she felt something like fate pressing down on her. She would glide through her exams and sweat through her workouts, the effort of which comparable by now to the performance of a song by a busker who’d been playing his instruments for many years. The saddest part – and it was sadness she felt then, dwarfing cynicism or anger or even paranoia – was that she hadn’t been lying to herself, or anyone else, for all those years: she’d truly believed there was something, for her or someone she knew, just around the corner, something that would mark out her life from the hundreds of years before her birth and the hundreds of years that followed. And perhaps there it remained, like the inside of a black hole, a mystery to everyone and that might one day be discovered, only not by her, because as time went on she knew she wouldn’t be looking.

A rattle came from the front door. The handle turned, and Chelsea sat up straight.

Sarah Aylett is a student at the University of Leeds.