It's early in the afternoon on Thursday 4 November 2010. I'm in Cornwall on a late-autumn holiday.
It's actually a lovely day. Not warm of course; but not chilly, and a brilliant sun is shining.
I'm on my own. I've already visited Portreath and Godrevy. Now I'm at Lelant, on my way into famous St Ives. On the spur of the moment I've decided to park Fiona at the Park-and-Ride car park at Lelant Saltings station, buy a train ticket, and go into St Ives by train. It's a short journey, just a few miles, and I've never done it before. The railway clings to the coast, and the views will be marvellous in the sunshine. And once at St Ives, I will explore on foot, down every alleyway. There's a lot I want to see and photograph, particularly around the pretty harbour, and up and down the narrow sidestreets.
I approach the the ticket machine. Buying a ticket to both park and ride is not as straightforward as I think. I settle on a £4 rover ticket that will let me shuttle between Lelant Saltings and St Ives to my heart's content, although really it'll just be one ride there and back again.
Another woman approaches the machine while I cogitate. I apologise for taking so much time over my purchase, especially as the train is due in only a few minutes. She says she doesn't mind, as she only wants a ticket to park her car at Lelant. She's a nice, pleasant woman in her late sixties. We start to chat.
And a sad story unfolds. She moved down to this part of Cornwall - so far from the rest of England - some years previously, with her husband. On his retirement. For a while they enjoyed the life, even though they had left behind friends and family, and all that had been familiar. Now he has died, and she is on her own. No family comes, except her son, but only rarely, because he lives so far away. She isn't good at building a life for herself, making new friends. Has she got a Midlands accent? I'm not sure, but it certainly isn't a West Country accent. She's a fish out of water. And she's stuck. She can't sell up and move back.
She's not sorry for herself, just wistful at how things might be if her husband were still live, and regretful for their joint decision to make Cornwall their retirement home. It seemed such a good idea. Now she feels trapped. And lonely.
I feel so sorry for her. I decide to change my plans to suit her, to put her first, and give her all my time. I say to her, would she like to join me on my visit to St Ives, the two of us on this lovely sunny afternoon? We can be company for each other, and just mooch around the place; nothing demanding or difficult; perhaps we can have coffee and a bun in some little café, or a gallery. Would she like to do that? She is obviously tempted, but sadly shakes her head. She has a dental appointment in Lelant. She can't miss that. But she thanks me for the suggestion.
I hear the rumble of the train approaching. I've got to go. We give each other a cheerful goodbye, and I catch the train. But I do not forget her.
I did enjoy a wonderful afternoon. The journey into St Ives lived up to expectations. Look at these views out from the smeary windows of the train:
It was thrilling to see St Ives come into view. At end of the line, a respectable number of passengers left the train, even though it was November:
I felt sure that the lonely woman would have enjoyed the ride. I'd been to St Ives before, and knew which way to take so that I ended up at the harbour. One caught glimpses of the old heart of St Ives, the ancient fishing village part, through gaps in buildings:
Down at the harbour, couples were all around, whether in harbourside pubs, or just sitting down together to watch the scene:
If you were feeling lonely, if you were on your own, the sight of these couples might have got to you. I did wonder whether the woman I'd met - presumably by now having a tooth filled - might have been upset at other people's close companionship, had she been here with me. There were entire families too, doing family things, on spacious town beaches :
I thought of her all through the afternoon. What she might be feeling. Whether her life really was as empty as she had made out. I knew it might well be.
My afternoon continued. I went on to Zennor. And then arrived at Lanyon Quoit exactly at sunset, securing shots I never thought I'd get:
Did she ever drive out and see these things too? I couldn't help wondering. Then on to Penzance. I ended up at the station, the important-looking terminus of the main line from London Paddington. People were waiting there, on their own, with their bags:
Were they going home, to some big city, and some cold and empty flat perhaps? The late-afternoon train came in, disgorging a crowd of individuals:
Who were they all? Did any of them know each other? Which of them had somebody at home to greet them, and make a nice cup of tea for them, and listen to their news? Who had nobody at all?
All the lonely people, where do they all come from?
All the lonely people, where do they all belong?
I choose to be solitary, and because I can choose, I do not feel lonely. I can do something about it, if ever I feel my world is too empty. I've not had desperate loneliness thrust onto me, through bereavement perhaps, or the circumstances of a job, or a particular way of life. I feel very lucky about that.
I wonder how the woman I met at Lelant is coping. I always knew I would one day write about her. I wonder if she has cut her losses, and gone back to wherever she used to live. Or has finally made some good friends. I will never know.