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  • Lorries rumbling into the council depot across the road woke us most days except Sunday, so if I ever rolled over and looked out on to the London street silent below, I didn't need a watch to know whether it was too early to get up. Regular as clockwork in his habits, there was a man who lived in an apartment across the road and spent every night hunched by the window, sometimes with the ebbing bud of a cigarette or blue gleam of a television shining through the nets behind him. Grey-red streetlights only showed the darks clearly; thick hair, a heavy brow, plain sweaters. Spectacles a few times but never for long. I never saw him drink or do anything to alleviate the long, empty visits to the window. He'd sit there, chin propped on his hand, whiling away his life. If he was still there when it was getting bright, I knew I could go back to sleep.
    Seven years in that bedroom with its wide windows and he never once acknowledged me or my sister's presence when she peeped at him from the lower bunk. His usual hours to appear were any time between eleven and one but he was always gone by five in the morning. It made me wonder if he was one of the lorry drivers or council workers who were amongst the first to stir in the city each day. He looked like a bin man, missing only the donkey jacket, resembling the character Trigger in the sitcom 'Only Fools And Horses'.
    For some reason we never tried to attract his attention. That's surprising in retrospect as we were naughty kids and a bit tough, but if he did turn away we'd duck our heads and hide, for reasons we never quite understood. What kind of person spends their years living in the night, alone and silent? Was it incurable insomnia, had there been an awful accident or a dark secret? Brooding and unmoving, he took his place on the sill without fail, and I wondered what he thought. Could it be possible that he didn't think at all, but if so, why the window? There was nothing to see but the high, pale bricks of the flats that rose up in a long line of wedges. A telephone pole strung with wires led from the depot and the Paulet Arms stood further down on the same side of the street. Neighbours in the houses next to the block he lived in had caused a stir by interring the head of the family's remains in the front garden of their council house, a big wreath done in blue and white, the Millwall team colours. But he couldn't see any of that, just the high yellow walls of the flats.
    Was it a waste of life? Was there something special about his brain that didn't need a normal sleeping pattern, did he spend these waking hours alone out of choice, or was he ineluctably awake and stuck at home because there nothing wholesome to be done in a city at night. Or was he plotting and scheming, a grand bank heist, maybe using the rubbish truck if he really was a binman, exerting some grand plan to one day floor it with dirty hands and two tons of used notes. Had he been in jail? Broken in love? A social reject? Did he hate the human race and want to distance himself without ever doing harm? Was he a killer in hiding who could never show his face by day? Waiting for something? Did his mind teem with so many thoughts that sleep was the real waste, and in the perfect quiet performed long thought experiments or enjoyed the purest of mental pursuits, philosopical adventures. Had he perfected meditation that allowed his mind to wander free of the body during those still spells looking out that window?

    One person, as guarded and the soul of discretion in every tiny movement as was, gave away in his habits a type of humanity which is rare to observe: that loneliness is not the lack of other people.
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