Driving home on a wet Wednesday we passed a boy wearing a black Parka. He  was walking at a good pace. As I watched him he pulled his hood back off his head and ran his hand through his jet black hair a few times to get rid of his sweat. He was in his late teens, perhaps even older. Seeing him ruffle his hair made me wonder why he was in such a rush and where he was rushing to. In seconds, I had a view of his day. I saw him waking in his crumpled bed, alone. I saw him breakfast on toast and coffee, and then run out of his flat, late for university. I saw him doodle during a lecture, and smile at the girl beside him in class. I saw them speak. And then he slotted into now, beside us, rushing home, needing to get washed and changed ready for his date that evening.

None of this was true, though all of it could have been.

For some reason, I became intensely aware of everyone around us. On either side of the road were houses that were mostly in darkness. Each window that we passed became a portal to other people’s lives. 

We came to four big Edwardian houses that were the homes of three pensioner couples and one widow. The couples each had routines that they had developed and refined over may years, and nothing but death or infirmity would change them. The widow was the happiest of them all. Free at last to do as she pleased, her windows now hung with gaudy golden swagged curtains in place of the timid beige set that pre-dated her widowhood. Her neighbours looked on her with envy and happiness and frustration and fear.

None of this was true, though all of it could have been.

A block of council flats slid by. A two story building, the upper floors for younger people, the lower for those with mobility issues that precluded the use of stairs. At one of the first floor windows, a bed sheet had been hung in place of curtains. In the flat directly below, lace curtains had been carefully tied back to frame a bunch of flowers standing in an ornate glass vase. A faint tang of weed floated in through the car ventilation. I wondered which residents annoyed the other most, the couple upstairs hiding from the shame of their poverty, or the granny on the ground floor toking her medicinal herb.

None of this was true, though all of it could have been.

Coming to the turn off for our house, we saw a big crowd of people standing near the corner of the turn. I had never seen anyone waiting here, let alone a group. They were gathered in front of a smart bungalow around a couple of shiny new cars. At first we thought there had been an incident of some kind, a car crash or a fight or even both. Then I noticed that one of the vehicles was a hearse. A pinewood coffin lay in the back. I saw the screw-down fastenings that held it in place. I realised that one of our neighbours had died, and that I didn’t know anything about them and that now I never would.

This was true, though it could not have been.

Sit there. Lie there, in your bed, in your own space. Close your eyes. Who is the person nearest you? What are they doing? What have they done? Don’t think about yourself. Keep thinking about them, and then think about who is nearest to them? What are they going to do, and how, and why? And then think about the people just a little farther away, and how their lives are turning. Can you feel them? Is their life touching yours? And then reach out again. More lives, more things happening to other people, more unknowable purposes and emotions and characters and histories. Step further. The French farmer. The Scottish fisherman. The Belgian teacher. Step further still. The Turkish beggar. The Greek pensioner. The Syrian bureaucrat. The Saudi mechanic. The Japanese banker. The Aboriginal social worker. All lives that we can never know, all happening at the same time as ours. The sheer, crushing weight of it, the busyness of it, the incredible wonder of it. The horror of it.

What lives around us.