He felt it deeply and sometimes it was almost too much to bear; sometimes the deep gnawing emptiness in his soul felt so all consuming, so deep and vast and un-fillable that he thought about killing himself.
The first time he could remember feeling this way was as a child. At ten he had faked a suicide attempt. He remembers clearly scratching at his wrists, crying loudly – loud enough to get his parents’ attention. And he remembers what he wanted, what he thought at the time was required to fill the void. He wanted them to tell him they loved him. It was that simple. He needed more than the tough love of being clothed by them, fed by them, disciplined and constantly driven to do better, to be better. The void could only be filled by a hug, by the saying of the words – the simple but absent words: “I love you.”
His mother, always unpredictable, predictably so, slapped him and said, “My God! If you had died, what would the neighbours have said? They would have said that I was a bad mother.”
His father cowered behind her, uncomprehending, un-coping, passively expressing his disapproval of her methods by not getting involved, but as always too weak to actually intervene.
At college he thought the elusive thing – the great hunger within was for a woman, for love, for sex. But that love seemed as elusive as the love of his parents; and when he did find it he found he didn’t want it, or at least not the sex part. Friendships seemed to ease the pain, but in the intimacy of the bedroom he found that that really wasn’t what he wanted, and by the end of college it was the love of men he was searching for. And sometimes he found it. And sometimes it too made the great aching hunger go away for a while. And sometimes it didn’t.
For a time, in his late twenties, pure, unadulterated materialism seemed to do the trick. Slapping a Sony TV or a top-of-the-range amplifier, or a Hugo Boss suit or a leather sofa on the credit card would make the craving fade into the distance – far enough to slip off the edge of the radar. For a while. Sometimes the feel-good factor would last hours, sometimes days. Sometimes it would last right up until the credit card statement arrived the following month. But one way or another, the emptiness always came back, and when it did, it always knocked him for six, leaving him staring at the blank wall, wondering what to do, what was missing, and how to get it.
When he got to the end of the road with materialism, when the hi-fi was top-notch, and the car was Car Of The Year, when the sofa was premium quality calf-hide, and the washing machine “intelligent” and automatic; and above all when the credit card had reached its ultimate limit beyond which even the banks – usually so encouraging – refused to go any further, he turned to religion. Maybe God is what’s missing, he thought simply. Maybe God can fill the void.
Only the God he had been brought up with – and then forgotten in his youth years, seemed, on closer inspection, a bit dumb. His spokesperson on earth – The Pope was, as far as he could see, be positively evil. So he tried other religions – Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, and though some were clearly less offensive than others, though not all of them insisted on the stoning to death of the gay man that he was, they all seemed to have a rub. In Christianity it was the virgin births and the universe created in seven days, in Buddhism the omnipresence of Ying and Yang, the uniting of male and female as the sole and unique principle guiding the universe. They all seemed to have some fundamental point that his modern intellect would simply never be able to accept.
In his thirties he thought it was a bigger social life that was needed, so he moved to the city and joined clubs for people who liked motorbikes and drawing, and went to clubs for people who like to dance and have sex with men. And when this failed to satisfy he went in search of – and found – and infinite number and variety of sexual encounters. Soft sex, rough sex, group sex, but like shopping, it invariably left him depressed, more depressed afterwards even than before.
In his forties he moved to the country – the city wasn’t doing it for him, and he just didn’t seem to have the energy for the social whirl he had been filling his life with anymore. What he needed, maybe, was land and trees, chickens and tomato plants, and when this too failed to satisfy – for he felt too isolated – he sold up and bought a small place in the country and a small flat in the city so that he could flit between them at will, and he would sit in the city watching the twinkling of the lights and wonder why he was there, and he would sit in the country and watch the rippling of the leaves on the trees and wonder why he was there too, or he would sit at his steering wheel driving from one to the other and wonder simply, why?
He looks up. The shrink’s glasses are reflecting the light from the window behind him, concealing his eyes.
“I’m sorry?” he says. “I… was… elsewhere…”
The man smiles tightly. “Yes, I see that. That’s fine. I asked you to tell me about your mother. I asked you what your relationship was like?”
Yes, now, in his fifties, he is wondering whether what he really needed all along wasn’t simply the love and approbation of his parents. Could it really be that simple?
And wouldn’t that be ridiculous? A sixty year old still being driven by his parents?
But it’s too late of course. For they are gone. And if they weren’t, if they were still alive it wouldn’t help anyway. For that love, that approbation, well… it was never there.