eople like me and you do not get by on instinct. We are as unlikely to say ‘I just had a gut feeling’ as we are to eat meat, holiday in Israel or read a comic book. Our opinions are evidence-based; our actions driven by objectivity and cool analysis. This is the foundation stone of that rock solid belief system shared by people like us. It is the unstoppable accumulation of data, unimpeachable research, that turned us vegan, informed our support for the oppressed peoples of Palestine and strengthened our view that cartoons make you stupid. And yet, one day I had what I can only describe as an inkling . . .
The first little tingle, warning me that something disturbing was happening to me and you, came after that night out with Lee. You were walking ahead of me up the narrow pavement that led to our house and I knew you were angry about something and I presumed it was something to do with me. I knew you were angry because you neither complained about the hill (‘This bloody thing. Why isn’t there an electric trolley car or funicular or something to get us up here?’) nor mentioned the stars (‘You never see that many in the city, do you?). Instead you trudged on in silence, leading the way, and I followed with a growing sense that there were words to be had as soon as we were indoors.
‘Why did you say that about Lee’s father?’ you said as soon as I had locked the front door behind me.
I knew better than to reply immediately. Various actions - taking off my coat, hanging it on one of the hall hooks and moving to the kitchen - all gave me moments to think. There’s a fine line between taking your time and refusing to answer but it is a skill you have allowed me to hone over the years. My equivalent of counting to ten has become: three actions, five paces. And speak.
‘I’m sorry. What did I say?’ I said, readying tap and kettle for my next pause.
‘You know how sensitive they are about people talking behind their back. And paranoid,’ you said.
I turned the tap on and filled the kettle, walked to place it on its base. Five steps. And said, honestly, ‘Honestly, I have no idea what you are talking about.’
A risky tactic this but I felt secure, secure enough to face you with the smallest of smiles.
‘You don’t?’ you said.
‘Honestly, no,’ I said, my honesty shining from my slightly smiling face and my open gestures. (Now that the kettle was on to boil, my hands were free to provide mimic back-up to my obvious innocence.)
‘Lee, you said,’ you said, ‘How are things with your Dad? I hear you had quite a falling out, you said.’
O this was going to be easy, I thought. Tea bag in mugs, milk from fridge, dribble. Pace, pace, speak.
‘Yes that is what I said,’ I said.
‘Why? Why would you say that?’ you said.
‘Because that is what you told me,’ I said.
‘What?’ you said.
There was something about the look on your face at this point that gave me pause.
We go about our business, don’t we? We guard the hive. We hover over the wide open upturned mouths of our many offspring and make sure the bugs in our beak are dropped into theirs in more or less equal portion. Patiently we gnaw at a log. Dutifully we leap upstream, migrate with the seasons, offer a paw when asked, use the flap provided to exit and enter the house. We all do our bit.
A student has said, ‘Gatsby is a stalker. But he may have PTSD so we should forgive him.’
I thought about sharing this with you. You love Fitzgerald, after all. But what tone? What stance? Is this an astute observation? Does it reveal an interesting generational perspective that should amuse us, or intrigue us, show that either we were more sophisticated back then or were we so naïve that we were incapable of relating what we read in books to what we saw in the world around us? Should I shake my head and turn this into one of those kids-these-days moments that will bring us together, giggling like 20th Century schoolkids? Stalker! Would you believe? PTSD! I mean, I ask you!
I decided to say nothing. You were hunched over your laptop, pecking away at the keyboard with two fingers as if you were trying to disturb the worms that lived under there. Your long hair fell down and hid your eyes, your insulating concentration, that off-putting focus that I knew so well. It seemed a good idea to wait.
Finished with my tiny duties, I took a moment to wonder what it was that absorbed you so, what ogreish task held you tight in its grip. Perhaps you were beavering away . . . patiently we gnaw . . . beavering away at your witty snarky advice column. Sitting there pecking out imagined tales of reverse erectile malfunction or far-fetched cases of gender dysmorphia before passing around that wee poke of acid drops that you always have at hand. Did you think of the cruel advice first, I wondered, and then construct the ludicrous dilemma? Or was it more satisfying to first dream up all the awful disfiguring nightmare-inducing suffering that might befall people who were not us? Then ridicule them for it . . .
I considered the construction of a parody problem, a flimsy bridge over our current impasse. Dear You, Somebody close to you wishes to share something with you that you may find amusing. But they remember what happened last time. Eagerly, Me.
How long passed before I broke down and decided to speak? How long is a strand of hair?
‘A student has said that Gatsby is stalker with PTSD,’ I said.
The hair continued to hang, the fingers to peck.
‘What do you think?’ I said.
‘About what?’ you said into the keyboard.
‘Gatsby,’ I said.
‘Gatsby,’ you said. Hair. Peck.
‘Yes,’ I said.
‘I don’t know,’ you said. ‘I’ve never read it.’
I considered you a treat. I consider you a treat. I was aware that we had come to some sort of bump in the road, that some part of our life together had been tilted, but I refused to let whatever it was get in the way of that most basic of facts. You were, and will always remain, a gift. You are my prize for coming first in some race that I cannot remember entering. You are my award for reaching a pinnacle that I have no memory of climbing. There is something about what you mean to me that cannot be affected by our not always being on the same page.
When I was out at work, you remained in our home. More and more I found that I was thinking of you on those days, trying to imagine what part of the house you may be in, what attitude you were striking, what you were doing, what you may be thinking. Most often, I imagined you were at your desk in the small bedroom that we used as an office. I, too, was at my desk. As I was thinking of you, it seemed likely that you were thinking of me. My palm supported my cheek, elbow planted on the worn wooden surface, and this is how I saw you at home. Even from this distance, we mirrored each other. I felt certain.
There was no way I could check on this, of course. At least not with any degree of accuracy. If I came home and - following a suitable interval filled with those early evening activities that involved polite enquiry (cooking, eating, washing up, the news on TV) - I tried to, casually, drop into the conversation something along the lines of: can you remember exactly what you were doing at 2.20 this afternoon, then it was all too easy for me to guess how that particular conversation would pan out. Bewilderment, exasperation, even suspicion would be thrown in my direction and rightly so. It was in the best interests of both me and you that I simply assumed my feelings were accurate. At 2.20 you sat with your cheek in your palm and your elbow on the desk and you thought about me until you cramped up slightly. Absolutely extraordinary. Talk about two people being in synch!
Me and you stayed in a place somewhere in Rajasthan with a massive foetid heap just outside our bedroom window. Vultures worked their way around that steaming pile of crap all day long. Only me and you know what that smell was like. It can’t be described; it can’t be visited. Now it existed solely inside the two of us.
That was one of my thoughts that night that you were working late organising some award ceremony or other and I decided to cook something special, something nostalgic. Our senses have absorbed the same stuff. The art we have seen and heard . . . Betty Davis was screeching away at high volume as I chopped the ginger and chillies and I recalled me and you being delighted with her jerky leggy form, sitting in the dark at the BFI . . . the art we have seen and heard together worked in sedimentary fashion. Slowly, grain by grain, a relationship was formed.
And don’t forget the tastes! It was as if I could hear you laughing in my ear as I rolled the smoked tofu in its miso dressing. How could I? How could we ever forget, me and you, the discoveries of food shared on our travels? This night was planned as a tribute to those many many times we had sat in an unlikely café, the only customers, as an ancient wrinkled proprietor cooked up a feast over a single flame. Places that can’t be described; places that nobody we know will ever visit.
Touch has a memory, Keats said. There aint half been some clever bastards, Dury said. I was in an excellent mood.
I set the table, making sure to place a fork and spoon next to your chopsticks. You’re a sport to try but it’s something you’ve never picked up. I changed the music to Erik Satie and I remember I was just dimming the light switch in our front room when I heard your key in the door.
You went upstairs to change and I called out, ‘Food on the table in five minutes.’ There was an unusual sense of anticipation for me that night. I am not sure what it was. I had made an extra effort, true, but it wasn’t that unusual. Only there was something about my musings as I cooked that made it feel like a special night for me.
I served the food in four large dishes placed in the centre of the dining table. Those pretty bowls we bought from Tangs department store in Singapore were empty and ready to be filled. ‘Help yourself,’ I remember I said. I noticed you looked a little strained and that you hadn’t spoken since you came in but I was confident the feast I had prepared, specially mind, would soon cheer you up. I’m sure I’d be a bit grumpy if I ever had to plan something as preposterous as an award ceremony.
I watched you fill your own pretty bowl with noodles and vegetables and place some of the tofu on the top. Then you took your chopsticks and picked up a slithery piece of pak choy with an expertise that you have never possessed.
In my game you have to understand that interpretation is everything. Ownership and meaning are always up for grabs. It’s a concept that I enjoy introducing to young minds, watch them struggle with it and then see that release of blessed relief when they get to grips with its implications. Nobody can ever tell us we are wrong! Authors don’t own their texts, not once they hand it over to us. What matters are our feelings, our responses, what it means when it passes through the filter of us. You have to be able to back it up, I say. Yeah, whatever, they say. Bless them.
There is no fact not worth questioning. There is no such thing as an incontrovertible truth. Certainty is for villains; heroes have doubts. When two people tell me that Everest is the world’s highest mountain, I assume that they are both telling me something different. There are, I am sure, as many concepts of height as there are people on the planet. The idea that something is more or greater than something else is such a challenging proposition that I am surprised that any agreement can ever be reached to decide the most basic competition. Don’t get me started on sports. Or award ceremonies. For me The Guinness Book Of Records is the most provocative book ever published. So my starting point on what we share as humans makes it difficult for me to accept that anything is ever truly shared.
But it’s lonely, this outlook. No matter how appealing it may be to blow young minds with, something in my own philosophy denies my nature. It’s intellectually cold and I am, I assure you, one of the warm ones.
So, romantically, I make room for the notion of two people who are so in tune with each other that they make joint memories. They travel to Nepal and they see the same mountain, give it the same name, link it to the same associations from their past. They hold hands and look up into the clouds and transfer emotions and impressions one to the other so that they can be shared with full mutual understanding until death. Outsiders may not agree with them or even believe them but the two will know. The two will always know.
‘Ow!’ you said
‘Something wrong?’ I said
‘What are you doing?’ you said
‘What do you mean?’ I said
‘That,’ you said
‘That?’ I said
‘Ow! Yes,’ you said
‘That’s just the usual,’ I said
‘The usual?’ you said
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘This didn’t seem an appropriate occasion for experimentation.’
‘There is nothing usual about it,’ you said
‘You’ve gone off it?’ I said
‘Who could ever like something like that?’ you said
‘You’ve never complained before,’ I said
‘You’ve never done it to me before,’ you said. ‘Believe me, I would have complained. Loudly’
‘Maybe you’ve changed a little’, I said
‘What do you mean?’ you said
‘Some sort of shift. An adjustment of sorts,’ I said
‘An adjustment?’ you said
‘Yes, perhaps. A change. A shift. A - let’s call it - a realignment. You know. Inside,’ I said
Places, please, everyone! Endings are choreography, well-drilled routines wherein each plucky member of the troupe plays a vital role. You need a strong opening, of course, but in Acts Two, Three and Four it goes unnoticed if you fluff a line or two, fumble a prop or miss an entrance here and there. But everything has to come together in an agreed pleasing fashion before we can all stand up in the light. We forgive those early mistakes in anticipation of the satisfaction to come.
We knew that a final act required willing, cooperative participants. There can be no slacking, no surprises, no rebellion. If Desdemona puts up a fight then we miss last orders. A delay to the train at that platform in Moscow leaves Anna kicking her heels. The impetus is lost. Our minds wander.
There is a corny geometry to endings. Witness the presence of Lee as our curtain came down. Lee - who may or may not have fallen out with their father - was essential; all acts of disintegration need to be observed by a third party. Shame needs a witness. Failure only occurs when somebody else is disappointed in you. Etcetera.
So Lee sat between us and they were forced to listen to versions of us. There was nothing out of the ordinary that I recall, just the usual small discrepancies: who said what, who did what, who refused to do what, who was amazed to realise that not doing something you don’t want to do was now seen as some sort of transgression against our mighty ruler. It was all going along more or less as normal until that inevitable momentum that comes with socialising took over. Pleasantries must turn into conversation which must become a discussion and discussion requires illustration and that leads to story. And story in a social setting will, inevitably, birth anecdote and someone will give in to the seductive pull of performance.
On that occasion it was Lee - it had to be - who broke ranks and decided our amusement was their responsibility. They flapped and gurned their way through some predictable date-gone-awry saga. Either they or their prospective hook-up was awkward or rude or too short. I wasn’t listening as I had already decided the best possible response, the perfect thing to say, as soon as an appropriate gap in their monologue appeared. I watched Lee stop to draw breath and then carry on a few times until eventually their closed lips seemed to signal some sort of ending. I swooped in. I turned to you.
‘Sounds like a case for your advice column,’ I said.
You looked at me. You could have painted a full scale Rivera mural on your expression.
‘I haven’t the faintest idea what you are talking about,’ you said.
Were you waiting for me to speak again?
My silence was deep enough to bury a body.
I wish to say something but I am concerned you may not be able to consider it
Why won’t I?
I fear you may be distracted. You may not be able to offer your full attention
No. Not at all
Your mind is not elsewhere?
No. I am here. I promise. What did you wish to say?
Just that I admire people who never give up but I have no time for people who won’t take no for an answer
Don’t fret. You are neither of those
One of them is good, though
The first one. I said I admire them
It’s hard to listen sometimes, isn’t it?
Yes. Make up for it by saying something pleasant about me
You’re very polite
A considerate type
Yes. On that narrow pavement down to the town I always step into the road to let people pass. Have you noticed that?
I have noticed that
Whether I am facing towards the oncoming traffic or not
Putting yourself at risk for others
Whether or not they push a pram or use a . . . I have forgotten the name
Stick. Whether or not they use a stick. Any age. I step out into the traffic
Often for no thanks
Often for no thanks
Thank you. What are you reading?
Has it won awards?
Would you mind setting that book aside for a short time so that we may talk?
No not at all
That is wonderful. My previous friend would never do such a thing. My previous friend would make an unpleasant sound with their tongue to make me feel as if I had done something inconsiderate
Even though we have established that you are most considerate
My previous friend showed similar inconsistencies
That’s horrible. Even though we have established that you are amenable to other’s needs. Even though you may wish to keep reading, you recognise that I wish you, for a short time probably but who knows . . .
That’s true. I had no idea how long you wished to talk for when I set my award-winning novel aside
I may have been asking you to abandon it for the remainder of the night. But you didn’t hesitate. You recognised my need and set your own aside like . . .
Like an award-winning novel I was enjoying
. . .
We are doing fine, aren’t we?
Yes. I am certain we are
We will know when we are not
I am certain of that
We have proved it, after all. Before
Yes. Both of us have proved it
I wanted to talk to you about what I said earlier
Do you remember when I said that I admired people who never gave up but I had no time for people who refused to take no for an answer?
Yes. I was reading. We were sitting as we are now
It was very recent
. . .
Well I am not sure I understand why . . . perhaps you will be able to make me understand over the course of this conversation . . . but I was hurt by your response
I am so sorry
Your lack of response rather
I can only apologise
Thank you. It hurt
May I ask what response you would have preferred? How may I not have hurt you?
Certainly. Let me . . .
I think I wished for some acknowledgement that I had said something clever
Yes. Some hint from you that you understood that there was considerable overlap between the groups of people involved. That admiring one group and dismissing the other could cause me some difficulty
I see. Yes that is clever. I am so sorry that I didn't notice it. I think I was reading at the time and, so, my attention was divided
I understand that
Thank you. Though I have to say that your reaction does come as something of a surprise
Well you are not a vain person
That is true. That is, I think it is fair to say, well-established
I thought so
I do not seek praise
Not at all
Remember, for instance, the time I won that award and I gave a short speech saying that I didn't deserve it. Most of those present were certain that my speech was sincere, a true reflection of my feelings
I wasn't there, I'm afraid
It was my previous friend
It must have been
You, however, have won an award when I was present, haven't you?
Yes. I won an award quite recently
And you gave a speech
Yes. I gave a short speech saying I didn't deserve it
I believed it was sincere
Thank you. I believe I really meant it
And another thing worth noticing
I wasn't jealous then. Nor am I now
That's wonderful to hear
Good. This lack of jealousy, along with my politeness, rank amongst my admirable qualities
Yes they do
Odd, then, that my lack of vanity didn't save me from that recent hurt
Yes it is
Do you have any explanation? I am really at sea here
Well it does remind me a little of my previous friend
They professed to have a sense of humour and would occasionally be hurt if I did not appreciate a joke
Yes it was
Oddly, your reaction also reminded me of my previous friend
That seems a remarkable coincidence
How can I possible be like them?
O I assure you you are not! Heavens!
But in this one instance?
Yes. On this occasion I was reminded of them. How they would not listen to something I said that could be considered witty
And when you have to repeat it then that lessens the effect of your witticism
Naturally. It is diluted beyond repair like . . .
A spoiled summer drink. One of those in a jug filled to the brim with ice that is left out on a table in the garden for too long before the guests finish it. The first couple of glasses are delicious but then . . .
A terrible shame
. . .
. . .
Does it affect you in any way when I say you remind me, in some aspects, on rare occasions, of my previous friend?
Yes, I must say that I do feel something
What do you feel, may I ask?
It is difficult to describe
Can you try?
. . .
Well. It is not exactly hurt. It does not feel the same as when you, in effect, ignore me . . .
I am so sorry
. . . by not taking the time to understand something I may have taken some time to prepare
I am so sorry
It is more akin to a small irritation like . . .
A small patch of reddened skin near the top of the shoulder. One that is easy to reach but you wish were a little easier
Yes. Exactly like that
I am so sorry
It irks me when you say that I remind you of your previous friend. I am nothing like them. I have never met them
Actually you have
Yes. You two did meet
Under what possible circumstances could I have met your previous friend?
It was when I won my first award, do you remember?
This was not a recent event?
No it was some time ago
Did you give a short speech saying how you didn’t deserve it?
Yes I did
Yes I do remember. I remember I believed you meant it
Thank you. I believe I was being sincere
Sincerity . . . and I am not sure I have said this to you . . . is one of your admirable qualities
And your previous friend was present at this event?
And you spoke with them briefly
You told them that you felt that I deserved my award
I did? Well you did
And did they agree?
They made no comment
Yes. My previous friend became rude
Often. It became one of their bad traits
Often. My previous friend could be very cutting
Yes. In front of other people
I am pleased I never witnessed that
No. You are lucky. You never met my previous friend
Not even when you were accepting an award?
No. There was no such occasion
Why is that?
You have won many more awards than me
O. Of course
. . .
How odd that we have never met in the street, though
That is odd
This is such a small place, after all
Yes. Odd that you have never, for example, had to move out of their way so that they may carry on up or down the narrow pavement
You feel that I would step into the traffic?
I am certain of it
No matter which direction I was facing?
I am certain. My previous friend would show no such consideration
They sound so difficult
You know . . .
What is it?
This may seem an unsuitable thought
Very well. You know I find it comforting when we discuss those traits in our previous friends that we find . . .
. . . challenging
Yes I also find that comforting
It feels like . . .
. . . soaking in a warm bath at the end of one of those days, one of those days when you may have, say, received an award and you have had to be on your best behaviour for hours, meeting people you may not know well or at all, dressed so that you do not cause comment, having to make sure that everybody understands that you think you didn’t deserve it, the chatter, the fixed smile that makes your teeth and cheekbones ache, the speech that says you don’t deserve it, the comments that you sounded sincere and the thanks that follow, the gossip about other ones that makes you wish to scream, the longing in your body for solitude, and then you come home and close a door, you open another door, you fill the tub, you close another door and you are alone and it is over and it has gone as planned so the relief in your body and mind and the warm water come together like . . .
. . .
. . .
. . .
You know that a trait you possess that is rarely acknowledged as one of your admirable qualities is your willingness to recognise, speedily, when you have made a mistake, phrased something a little carelessly or acted without sufficient thought
Yes it is. Yet this trait is never mentioned when people come together and discuss you and your character
Do people come together to do that? It is difficult to imagine
It is not difficult to imagine at all. Think! At an award ceremony in your honour, for example, it is only natural that the people gathered there would discuss you when you are out of earshot
Where might I be?
Elsewhere. In the bathroom perhaps perfecting your acceptance remarks so that we will be absolutely convinced that you believe you do not deserve your award
And, while I am doing that, people discuss my qualities?
Good and bad
. . .
. . .
Yet I am certain they never mention your efficient facility for apology
. . .
Which, to me, seems a great shame
Perhaps next time people gather to celebrate you and your works and you have disappeared for a time to prepare your remarks then I will raise this matter and ensure that it is recognised as a quality of yours that is to be placed on the plus side of your register
Thank you. I would appreciate that
We are doing fine, aren’t we?
Yes we will know when we are not, I am certain
We have always known before, haven’t we?
. . .
. . .
I may resume my reading now
This has been very useful. Fulfilling
I think so
Well worth taking the time away from my award-winning book
But. . .
Before you return to your reading I wish to say something
Whilst I have your full attention
I wanted to say that I admire openness in people but I have no time for those who share their thoughts, opinions and feelings with others
That is a position which presents you with some difficulty
Because people who are open are nearly always those who share their thoughts, opinions and feelings with others
There’s no need for praise, honestly
You deserve it
No. No really
The little brown dog
Because they like small dogs and had one that colour when they were little
Because their Mummy and Daddy wanted them to have a pet
To teach them how to look after a living thing
The little brown dog
Because it hasn’t got a name yet
Because the family cannot agree on a name
Because they often disagree and find it hard to come to a decision on anything
No, it’s my turn
The little brown dog
The little brown dog
Ian Boulton is a writer and editor living at the English seaside, having returned home after spells working abroad in Ukraine, Mongolia, Russia and Turkmenistan. He has published about twenty short stories in various outlets over the past eleven years. Last year he contributed to Dodo Ink's Trauma collection.